'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

On Kissing Mad Dog's Ass

Robert Fisk's most recent Independent column chronicles the amusing and somewhat depressing sight of Tony Blair prostrating himself before Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Amusing because Gaddafi is a walking caricature of a power-mad dictator, a caricature Fisk seems to relish elucidating -- we hear about Gaddafi's Amazonian female bodyguards, nutty sense of humor, bizarre literary aspirations, etc. -- but it is depressing because of the realization that this is where Bush's war has led us: cozying up to the regimes of autocratic thugs. The point of Blair's farce is, of course, the implication that Gaddafi is behaving himself recently because of Bush's invasion of Iraq. He behaves himself by no longer pursuing a nuclear weapons program that, as Fisk notes, there's not a lot of reason to believe was ever more than a convenient fiction:

Nor does the narrative of history make our Prime Minister's voyage to the Orient any saner. First of all, he sends our soldiers into Iraq because Saddam has weapons of mass destruction which no longer exist; then he pays a social call on Libya because Gaddafi really has had weapons of mass destruction all along. Or has he?

For one of the strangest elements to the Libyan saga is the newness of all those centrifuges and nuclear gizmos which the UN, the Brits and the Americans have been "finding" in Gaddafistan. Were they really there for decades? When did Gaddafi decide to install them? And how come the US intelligence service - which could identify non-existent railroad chemical weapons labs in Iraq - failed to pick up the radiation from Gaddafi's supposed nuclear programme? It was a humble Independent reader - thank you, Willy McCourt of Manchester - who pointed out to me that Libya has a population of only six million; "imagine Ireland having a nuclear programme and nobody knowing about it," he wrote. Quite so.

Indeed, you can say what you want about Gaddafi but the man has a talent for business and a talent for politics, and it looks like he played Bush and Blair perfectly. Blair's visit to Libya is the final plank in a bridge Gaddafi has been cobbling together for a long time.

In 1988 the UN imposed sanctions on Libya for refusing to hand over two men who were allegedly involved in the Lockerbie bombing. The sanctions, much less severe than the ones imposed on Iraq, were nonetheless a major thorn in Gaddafi's side; a vane showman, he hated being isolated from the world, unable to pursue his lifelong goal of becoming a revered statesman of Mideastern politics, the unifier of the Mideastern world. Eventually Gaddafi relented, extradited the suspected terrorists to the Netherlands, and the sanctions were suspended in early 1999. Gaddafi, unhappy with the lack of support he received from the Arab world during Libya's ten years of isolation, began a campaign to reinvent himself as a non-radical, non-mad-dog leader and as an elder statesman and unifier of Africa, launching a series of high-profile meetings cum photo-ops with Nelson Mandela, seemingly his new idol. Here's a 1999 Reuters article on Gaddafi's transformation:

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is celebrating his 30th anniversary in power this week on a new note of openness to the outside world as the barriers isolating his country from the West begin to come down.

If the first event -- an international investment symposium on Thursday -- is anything to go by there is a new pragmatism in the air Tripoli, the Libyan capital, that under Gaddafi has been a centre for anti-Western invective.

Always capable of springing surprises, the mercurial colonel opened the anniversary celebrations by appearing to reverse years of opposition to foreign investment, telling foreign businessmen at the symposium that foreign investment was now welcome in Libya.

[ ... ]

But this week the usual excited anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-American rhetoric of Libyan anniversary speeches appears to have been replaced by a new low-key caution.

"If you want to invest in Libya, you are welcome,'' Gaddafi said.

"Now we can throw away the rifle and work for peace and development," he recently told a French newspaper.

[ ... ]

He is still a long way from full rehabilitation in the eyes of suspicious Western governments and of Amnesty International which accuses him of human rights violations.

But he is not nearly so isolated as he was a year ago.

Next week Libya hosts a special organization of African Unity summit called at his suggestion to review the 36-year-old OAU charter.

Abandoning his Pan-Arab dream after a series of failed unification pacts with Arab countries, Gaddafi is now looking south and proposing the creation of the United States of Africa.

After 911 Gaddafi joined the rest of the world in supporting the United States and condemning terrorism, calling al-Qaeda members "crazy" and urging Libyans to donate blood for American relief efforts*. Hawks, of course, view such actions as Gaddafi quaking in his boots at the thought of an American attack on Libya, but such an assessment is a pretty big stretch given (a) Gaddafi's ongoing efforts to moderate his image for the past decade as sketched above, (b) the fact that according to a US State Department report from 1999 Libya had not been supporting international terrorism for "a number of years"*, and (c) the fact that none of the fiery rhetoric from the Bush administration following 911 even so much as mentioned Libya. Rather, it makes a lot more sense to view Gaddafi's post-911 behavior in light of his ongoing project to become a dignified African statesman and to bring foreign investment into Libya. Agreeing to put a stop to a nuclear program that didn't exist was Gaddafi's checkmate move in normalizing relations with the West.

To the extent that Gaddafi's new moderate image is a good thing, it is largely a result of the success of the framework of international law that BushCo belittles at every opportunity and of the success of the general strategy of treating acts of terrorism as crimes to be dealt with by the world's police apparatus rather than acts of war best stopped by military aggression, the neoconservatives' preferred remedy for all ailments. The UN security council, the Dutch international criminal court, sanctions, and banal multi-lateral diplomacy worked in this case, leading to a man Reagan called a "mad dog" making public statements against radical Islamicists. Still, the Bush administration offers up Gaddafi as a victory of its failed policies hoping the world will simply ignore the facts of the matter -- these people seem to be immune to many things; one of them is irony.

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