A Regime We Can Trust

How did the West get Qaddafi so wrong?


When Muammar al-Qaddafi assumed power in Libya in 1969 by means of a military coup d’état, he seemed intent on cultivating the status of international pariah: He banned all political opposition, loudly advocated sweeping Islamist ideologies that demanded the reordering of the international system, picked territorial fights with neighbors, and supported terrorists from the Irish Republican Army to the Palestine Liberation Organization. If his goal was to isolate himself and his country, Qaddafi was largely successful in his first three decades as head of state, even earning comprehensive U.N. economic sanctions.

But if Qaddafi never admitted the error of his ways, he eventually learned how to minimize the effect his erratic personality and repressive political inclinations had on his regime’s pursuit of stable relations with the rest of the world. By the time Qaddafi renounced the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in 2004, the international community was eager to begin patching up relations. Qaddafi made up for his years of solitude with a number of high-profile trips to Europe, as well as to the U.N. — though the lingering effects of isolation expressed themselves in his sometimes bizarre behavior and statements. Once interpreted as signs of pathology, Qaddafi’s eccentricities were redefined as mere personality quirks.

But now that Qaddafi’s brutality has returned full force — with his giving orders in recent days for indiscriminate attacks on protesters throughout Libya — there are more than a few in the West who may wish they can forget these past several years’ worth of photo ops.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair

Britain traditionally has had fraught relations with Qaddafi’s regime: Not only was the 1988 Lockerbie bombing perpetrated on British territory, but in 1984 a London police officer was killed in St. James Square, apparently by Libyan Embassy personnel shooting into a crowd of protesters (though the subsequent investigation was forestalled by Tripoli’s invocation of diplomatic immunity).

So it was particularly controversial in Britain when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair arranged to visit Qaddafi in February 2004, declaring, “It does not mean forgetting the pain of the past, but it does mean recognizing it’s time to move on.” In fact, Blair chose to make Libya’s opening to the West — and its continued domestic economic reform and international moderation — a major priority of his foreign policy. In the weeks before the trip, he praised Qaddafi for giving up his nuclear weapons program and thanked him for contributing to the fight against Islamic terrorism.

The meeting in Tripoli, however, wasn’t entirely focused on such lofty matters. Shortly after shaking hands with the Libyan leader on Feb. 24, Blair announced that the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell had inked a deal for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast worth $550 million. It was later revealed that Blair had personally lobbied the Libyan leader for the deal, using a letter drafted for him by Shell.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

For much of his tenure, Qaddafi directed his ideological anti-colonial ire at Italy, Libya’s colonial-era ruler. Shortly after the coup d’etat that brought Qaddafi to power, he unceremoniously ordered all Italians to leave Libyan territory. For the next several decades, the two countries had little to do with one another.

But after Silvio Berlusconi began his third non-consecutive term as prime minister in 2008, he realized he was going to need to reach out to Italy’s former territory. Berlusconi had campaigned on a law-and-order agenda with a hard line on illegal immigration from North Africa. The most efficient fix was to enlist Libya’s help.

Berlusconi convinced Qaddafi to look past old colonial grievances by means of a $5 billion reparations package, agreed upon in 2008. Qaddafi then flew to Rome in June 2009 to officially announce a deal to curb illegal immigration, allowing Italian patrols to return would-be migrants to Libyan ports. The visit was not without controversy. Qaddafi stepped off his airplane in Rome with a photo pinned to his chest of Omar Mukhtar, a Libyan resistance leader who was hanged by Italian colonialists in 1931. The Libyan leader also demanded that the Italian government arrange an event at which he could proselytize the virtues of Islam to a group of 1,000 Italian women. Finally, in discussing the immigration deal with the Italian press, Qaddafi made confusing and racially controversial remarks suggesting that African migrants to Europe had no intention of applying for asylum.

“The Africans do not have problems of political asylum,” Qaddafi said. “People who live in the bush, and often in the desert, don’t have political problems. They don’t have oppositions or majorities or elections.”

Economic ties between Italy and Libya have also been strengthened in recent years — Italy imports 20 percent of its oil from Libya, and Italian energy companies have invested heavily in Libyan infrastructure — but Berlusconi has proved unable or unwilling to apply political leverage against Qaddafi during the recent turmoil, saying that he has not wanted to “disturb” the Libyan leader during the crisis.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy took office promising to revise France’s traditional Gaullist disregard for human rights diplomacy, and he stocked his diplomatic ranks with officials with strong moral streaks. This just meant that no one in his government was happy when the president decided to apply classic French realpolitik in the case of Libya.

In the summer of 2009, Sarkozy was burnishing his reputation as an international statesman by involving himself in the final negotiations with Qaddafi to release eight Bulgarian nurses that the Libyan regime had imprisoned on charges of deliberately infecting 438 children with the HIV virus.

Later that year, in December, Sarkozy’s resident moralists were furious after their boss invited Qaddafi on a lavish five-day visit to France — one that began on “International Human Rights Day.” Sarkozy’s secretary of state for human rights fumed that Sarkozy threatened to make France a “doormat” where the Libyan leader “can come to wipe off the blood of his crimes.” Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner signaled his distaste for the visit, saying, “I am resigned to hosting him. It was necessary.”

Sarkozy defended himself by arguing that Qaddafi needed to be rewarded for his recent gestures toward the West. He also made a point of advertising $10 billion worth of investment deals that French companies signed with the Libyan government during the trip. But Sarkozy also went so far as to claim that Qaddafi was not considered a dictator in the Arab world, using his tenacious grip on power as evidence. “He is the longest-serving head of state in the region, and in the Arab world, that counts,” Sarkozy told the magazine Nouvel Observateur.

Richard Perle

When the United States lifted its sanctions against Libya in 2004, lobbying firms across the country began sizing up business opportunities. It couldn’t be denied that Libya’s image in the United States was in need of polish. After decades of support for international terrorists, Qaddafi’s Libya had become synonymous with disregard for international law — the archetypal rogue regime. The Libyan government quickly hired firms like Fahmy Hudome International and the Livingston Group to work on its behalf in Washington, though those business relationships have since been terminated.

But according to a report published Monday Feb. 22 in Politico, the Monitor Group, a Boston-based consulting firm, continues to be paid $3 million per year to, in the firm’s own words, “introduce and bring to Libya a meticulously selected group of independent and objective experts” who could portray Libya in a better light. Among those who worked for the Monitor Group in this capacity was Richard Perle, a prominent conservative defense official who worked in George W. Bush’s administration as chairman of the Defense Policy Board. Politico reports that Perle traveled to Libya twice in 2006 to meet with Qaddafi and “afterward briefed Vice President Dick Cheney.”

Politico quotes a 2007 report from the Monitor Group that claims the firm “continues to advocate on Libya’s behalf with a range of leading individuals” and “various agencies of the United States government.” The report cites a 2007 memo from the Monitor Group that lists among the participants in the Libya program prominent academics Francis Fukuyama and Bernard Lewis, and MIT faculty member Nicholas Negroponte, brother of former deputy secretary of state and director of national intelligence John Negroponte.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez

Qaddafi’s rambling 2009 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, in which he branded the Security Council a “terror council” and insinuated that the U.S. government was behind both 9/11 and swine flu, may have confused and annoyed most of the international community, but it won him a fan in the Venezuelan president, who praised the Libyan leader in his own address and invited him to a summit that month on the Venezuelan island of Margarita, calling him “one of the great leaders of this century.” At the powwow, which also featured an appearance from Zimbabwe’s pariah president, Robert Mugabe, the two leaders proposed a new international definition of the word “terrorism” and called for a South Atlantic alternative to NATO.

Chávez presented Qaddafi with Venezuela’s highest civilian honor — the order of the liberator — and gave him a replica of Simon Bolivar’s sword. The sword wasn’t the only bling Qaddafi brought home from his first ever trip to Latin America: He spent much of his time at the summit shopping for digital cameras and jewelry and posing for pictures with tourists. (He picked up a silver suit of armor for his host.)

Chávez also paid a visit to Libya that year, when he was the guest of honor at a military parade and had a soccer stadium named in his honor. One year later, he visited again to receive an honorary degree from Tripoli’s Academy of Higher Education. The third annual Africa-South America Summit was also due to be held in Libya later this year.

Qaddafi’s generosity has come in handy for Chávez. Last December, when he invited 25 families dislocated by floods to stay in his presidential palace, he temporarily moved into a Bedouin tent that his new friend had given him as a gift.

During the current unrest, British Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested that Qaddafi might have fled to Venezuela. Venezuelan authorities denied the reports, and Qaddafi has since appeared on television from Libya. Chávez has remained quiet during Qaddafi’s recent troubles, but his fellow Latin American leftist leader and friend of Libya, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, has waded right into the controversy, saying that Libya’s leader “is again waging a great battle” to defend his nation.

Cameron Abadi is deputy editor at Foreign Policy. He previously worked at the New Republic and Foreign Affairs and as a correspondent in Germany and Iran. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, the New Yorker, the New Republic, and Der Spiegel.  @cameronabadi

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