Despot Watch: The Q-Man

December 1, 2003 Topic: Failed StatesTerrorismSecurity Tags: Cold War

Despot Watch: The Q-Man

Mini Teaser: A terrorist superstar of yesteryear faces a mid-life crisis.

by Author(s): Joe Bob Briggs

I'm sad to report that our favorite North African despot has turned a little jowly in recent years. He's lost that Neil Diamond Grecian-bust look he had going on in his revolutionary youth, and when he loads himself up with military sashes and decorated pockets and epaulets and that broad-brimmed braided cap, the Colonel resembles nothing so much as an officious constable in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Maybe he's doing it on purpose. Maybe it's the new kinder, gentler friendly-guy-next-door Qaddafi. The title of "Colonel", after all, was conferred by the Brits. What kind of guy goes through life wanting to be the Colonel? We associate it with Colonel Sanders, not to mention Colonel Klink. It's the daft blundering guy who never quite makes general.

But then again, I think it's just Muammar's version of modesty--as much as he can muster anyway. He's always struck me as a guy who was not entirely comfortable addressing a Popular Congress, and I suspect he's spirited away a few Cuban Cohibas over the years. In this brave new world of post-Lockerbie Libya--no sanctions, no embargoes and the creation of a Libyan tourism ministry, of all things--I can almost imagine Muammar settling down into a Lazy Boy recliner in his Hush Puppies and channel-surfing from time to time. His recent speeches have even shown a disturbing familiarity with the Internet. The mind boggles: "Hey, whassup, peeps! I can be kinda wild, but I'm really an easygoing guy who likes to cuddle."

Is it possible? Has the Q-Man gone soft? Does the Director of Secret Operations knock on his tent flap in Benghazi and say, "Sir, we have three troublesome émigrés in Paris. Would you like us to send The Squad?" And does Qaddafi then say, "Oh, you know what, that's so seventies. Just run some articles in the Tripoli papers saying they have sex with dogs or something."

Of course, Qaddafi has always been the most mysterious of all pariahs. He has homes all over Libya, but chances are you'll find no Saddam-style golden saunas or hideaways for assignations with porn stars. Qaddafi is the Ward Cleaver of international dictators. He had that first brief marriage in the 1970s, then he found the girl of his Islamic dreams and stayed with her through five children who went through angst-ridden teenage years. If he'd had his heart in being a true Mohammedan super-despot, he would have had five wives and attendant offspring spread out all over the desert. Instead, he's got all these disappointing sons who are bored by the idea of being the next "Guide of the Revolution" and want to open car dealerships and go to football games instead. The only family member with an eye for politics is his daughter Aisha, who shops in London and Paris and could actually run the country--the Arab heads of state like her that much--but Muammar would have to go through some kind of sharia hell to make that happen.

Still, everything we know about Qaddafi is seen through a fuzzy curtain. He's always been so exotically remote to us that he even has a name that's impossible to pronounce or write in English. The man is a Google nightmare. Various attempts have been Gadhafi, Gadaffi, Gadhafi, Gadhdhafi, Kaddafi, Kadhdhafi, Khadafy, Qadaffi, Qaddafi, Qadhafi, Qadhdhafi and Qathafi, but no one really knows whether it's a "G", a "K" or a "Q", not to mention where all the h's go. His official biography is remarkably devoid of details about his early years--probably because they were spent organizing various cells plotting murder and revolutionary mayhem--but it always begins with "born in a desert tent near Surt." I've always suspected that the constant mention of Surt is an attempt to identify Qaddafi with the nation's main source of wealth--its oil fields--which lie in and around Surt and were not discovered until 1959, but were obviously squandered until a proper Surtite could marshal their economic power, primarily by seizing everything the Brits and Americans had built there. (The only American company, by the way, that stood up to Qaddafi's nationalization of the oil fields was the privately held Hunt Oil of Texas. Nelson Bunker Hunt harassed Libya in every court in the world until the Colonel finally wrote him a check to get rid of him. Apparently Bunker and Muammar understand each other.)

What we do know is that Qaddafi had no special interest in being a soldier except as a means to an end. He seems to have been obsessed with revolution even when clad in knee breeches at the British-style Sabha prep school in Fezzan. (You can imagine his entry in the class yearbook. "Hobby: deposing the monarch.") Following the example of his idol, Gamal Abdul Nasser, he entered the Military Academy in Benghazi, where his first secret corps was formed. He went on to the British military academy at Sandhurst, where he and his confederates took blood oaths to oust King Idris I. As it turned out, it wasn't that big a deal. The 1969 coup is always described as simple and "bloodless." Idris was part of the discredited and all but forgotten Senoussi monarchy installed by the allies after World War II, so there was no way he could be seen by the people as anything but a stooge of foreign interests. His real battle came afterwards, when he had to defeat the older officers who helped him but thought 27 was a little young to be donning the Fearless Leader hat. It took him three more months to turn them out.

Libya has such a strange history--with its shifting borders, Bedouin politics, dozens of foreign masters and lines redrawn in the sand (literally)--that it has remained suspicious of all foreigners, even those who would be the equivalent of what Canadians are to America: namely Egyptians, Tunisians and Chadians. Most African countries have staged some kind of jihad against European imperialists--be they British, French, Dutch or Belgian--but Libya is the only one to harbor everlasting hatred for Italian imperialists. Libya remains, in fact, the site of one of Italy's only foreign adventures, and a disastrous one at that. One of the first things commander-in-chief Qaddafi did in 1970 was to expel all the Italians that King Idris had failed to drive out 25 years earlier, including the ones that had hung on for three generations. (He even had the graves of their ancestors dug up and their bones disposed of.) He followed that performance by ousting the Jews, then closing the U.S. air base at Tripoli and the British barracks at Azizia. Inside those barracks today is Qaddafi's official tent, decorated on the inside with embroidered weavings of his famous sayings; on the outside, however, it is drab and unadorned, with a couple of picturesque camels tethered nearby for the desired effect on foreign visitors.

With the nation properly cleansed of pasta, blintzes, kidney pie and hamburgers, the Bedouin zealot then set out to become the kind of man only Lawrence of Arabia could appreciate. He believed in a true confederation of all Arab states, joined together under Islamic law in a union so strong they would become a third superpower. He was, in short, that most dangerous of dictators: the true believer. He set out his views in the Green Book (all three volumes of which are now conveniently available on Qaddafi's personal website), and we should give the man credit for being one of the most concise prose stylists in the history of tyrannical lunacy. You can actually read the entire Green Book in half an afternoon, and, although Muammar would not like this characterization, most of it is Communism Lite. He rails against communism, of course, because he was trying to adapt a socialist society to fit with sharia law, which wouldn't condone female bulldozer operators and quickie divorces. But, for the most part, it's an idiosyncratic blueprint for a sort of unwieldy socialist super-democracy, with everything managed by "popular congresses" (but not parties--parties are evil) that come to a common agreement without electing anyone (because "representative democracy" is equally evil). Everything belongs to the people. Everybody gets universal social services. Nobody owns anything or makes more than his neighbor. The workers own the natural resources. As long as OPEC was strong and the nation had a $9,000 per capita income, this was all fine. When that fell to $2,000, of course, the system came apart at the seams.

But let's not dwell on that. Let's recall Qaddafi's glory years, the 1970s, when there was no country too small (has any other country signed a mutual defense pact with Guinea?) or too large (he sent bags of money to redneck presidential brother Billy Carter) for Qaddafi to get his hands dirty. What's strange about these years is that you can't discern an overarching purpose in any of it, except perhaps Destabilizing the Entire Universe, like some villain in a James Bond movie.

Qaddafi was constantly trying to form Arab super-states by merging with Syria or Egypt or with Chad and Sudan, but then withdrawing and sometimes declaring war on his former allies when it became apparent that he couldn't be the leader of the whole chain of McArab states. He was so disappointed in Egypt, homeplace of his spiritual mentor Nasser, that he built a 200-mile-long wall to protect Libya from what had become, overnight, an infidel country because of its acceptance of Israel. In the Iran-Iraq war, Qaddafi intervened on the Iran side, even though Libya's population is overwhelmingly Sunni. He broke off relations with Saudi Arabia over the "U.S. occupation" there, even though any plan for his pan-Arab dream relied on Saudi goodwill. He bought massive amounts of armaments from the Soviet Union, thereby betraying his Chechen comrades, and kept up a constant war of nerves with his MIGs playing chicken with American recon planes near the Libyan coast. When oil was discovered in the Mediterranean, halfway between Libya and Malta, he declared that the territorial waters of Libya included everything up to 12 miles from the Maltese shore, a position that almost resulted in war. He invaded Chad in order to force it to become his friendly partner. He sent some dirty-tricks squads to Nigeria that caused an outbreak of violence, leaving one hundred dead.

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