The game is finally up for Muammar Gaddaffi. Amazingly he has been in power for forty-one years, during which time he has rarely been far from the headlines as his rule lurched between the madcap and the monstrous.
For much of his rule, Gaddafi has been a source of mirth around the world. Although he wore a modest colonel’s uniform when he seized power in a military coup as a twenty-seven year old, he soon exchanged it for a medal encrusted comedy dictator’s outfit from the dress-up box. On foreign trips, he was escorted by his all-female personal guard of Amazonians in tight-fitting uniforms and, rather than using the Presidential suite, pitched his tent on the front lawn of whichever Head of State’s residence he was visiting. Gaddafi was always good for a quote and once berated the UK for stealing Arab culture by claiming one of its greatest writers – Sheikh Speare – as its own. He also had the habit of unnerving guests, according to the journalist John Simpson and several senior politicians, by farting uproariously during meetings, which might not have been as funny as it sounds for those trapped within the confines of a steaming hot tent in the desert.
Gaddafi was always good for a quote and once berated the UK for stealing Arab culture by claiming one of its greatest writers – Sheikh Speare – as its own.
There may, though, have been method in the madness. For a brief period, it allowed Gaddafi to present himself as some sort of eccentric sage, with his “Green Book” pseudo-philosophy being promoted as a “third-way” between capitalism and communism for the developing world to follow during the Cold War era. His provocations of the West also enabled him to hijack the anti-colonialist agenda and pose as a champion of the oppressed of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Sadly, a forty-one year dictatorship cannot be sustained by theatrics alone and the real substance of Gaddafi’s regime has been an appalling catalogue of violence. Along with constant internal repression, Gaddafi’s regime was a significant supporter of other brutal dictators, such as Charles Taylor in Liberia and, via him, the RUF in Sierra Leone, which murdered and amputated the limbs of thousands in pursuit of illicit diamonds. In addition, Gaddafi was a major backer of terrorist groups throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, including supplying huge quantities of arms and money to the IRA. Libyan government agents also committed a series of terrorist outrages themselves, including the 1984 murder of a British policewoman, PC Yvonne Fletcher, in London, the 1986 bombing of the “La Belle” disco in Berlin, which killed three people and wounded 229 and the downing of a French UTA airlines flight from Chad to Paris in 1989, killing all 171 on board. Perhaps most notoriously of all, the Libyan Security Service was found to have perpetrated the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 passengers, crew and local residents.
A desire to distance themselves from...previous obsequiousness may in part explain the alacrity with which such countries were willing to seize the anti-Gadaffi uprising as an opportunity to be rid of a long-standing nuisance.
Given this atrocious background, the decision of the US, UK and other Europeans to respond to Gadafi’s overtures and re-engage with him a decade ago was bound to be controversial. Gaddafi’s change in direction was brought about by the damage international sanctions were doing to his finances and the threat posed by Islamist opponents to his rule (in typical contrary fashion, Gaddafi has often acted against his fellow Muslims, as illustrated by his lavish support for anti-Islamic neo-fascists such as Jorg Haider in Austria and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia). These concerns led Gaddafi to offer the West intelligence on Al-Qaeda, a renunciation of his nuclear and chemical weapons programmes and access to Libya’s massive oil and gas resources in exchange for a normalisation of relations. This change of course presented a huge dilemma for Western governments and their decision to engage with Gaddafi deserves to be viewed sympathetically. In the real world of foreign affairs it is not always possible to deal only with those of whom you approve and our political leaders had to offset their disgust with Gaddafi against their responsibilities to provide security and prosperity for their citizens. The dilemma became particularly acute in the aftermath of 9/11, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their height and there was immense value in neutralising a repeated threat such as Gaddafi without the need, or so it seemed at the time, for military intervention.
Where Western governments might be more justifiably criticised, is in subsequently going too far in ingratiating themselves with Gaddafi, such as the Brown government taking an overly close interest in the legal decision to release the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, on medical grounds and the attention lauded on the dictator by President Sarkozy during a state visit to France. A desire to distance themselves from this previous obsequiousness may in part explain the alacrity with which such countries were willing to seize the anti-Gaddafi uprising as an opportunity to be rid of a long-standing nuisance. After some shaky moments, it now looks like the intervention will succeed. The hope now is that the disparate group of rebels will be able to put together a government that will provide a better life for the Libyan people. Whatever happens, it is unlikely to be the source of as much misery as Gaddafi has been for those in a diverse range of countries around the globe, from Sierra Leone to Scotland.
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