New York Times [Magazine]
January 19, 2003
By SCOTT ANDERSON
Wearing a gold robe and matching cap, Muammar el-Qaddafi -- "the Leader," as he is universally referred to in Libya -- paces a well-worn strip of land beside his tent. He stares down at the bare earth as he walks, stopping occasionally to gaze up into the surrounding trees. His is the preoccupied walk of a philosopher thinking deep thoughts, or of an actor memorizing his lines.
An aide separates from the small pack of functionaries and bodyguards who have approached and hurries to Qaddafi's side. He clasps Qaddafi's elbow in an oddly collegial way and whispers in his ear. The Leader abruptly turns then, as if taking notice of his visitors for the first time.
He is an imposing man, about six feet tall with a still-athletic build, and though his mouth is fixed in a tentative half-smile, there is something wary in his manner. His eyes are hidden behind brown-tinted sunglasses.
"Welcome, thank you for coming," he says in English as we shake hands, making it sound as if this was all his idea. His smile broadens, and he places his right hand over his heart, a traditional Arab gesture of friendship and greeting. "Welcome."
A white plastic table and three plastic patio chairs have been arranged in the shade of a nearby tree, and we sit there together with his interpreter while the rest of the entourage retreats to a discreet distance. As Qaddafi settles in, a retainer quietly comes forward to hand him a homemade fly whisk, several sprigs of rosemary held together by a crumpled sheet of aluminum foil. Beneath his gold robe, the Leader wears dark socks and ostrich-skin slippers.
It has been 33 years since Muammar el-Qaddafi came to power in Libya -- and for nearly as long the West has been trying to write his epitaph. In the mid-80's, he was Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of the American government, "the mad dog of the Middle East" in Ronald Reagan's famous phrase. The financier of an eclectic array of guerrilla groups around the globe, he was also responsible, according to Western intelligence, for many of that era's deadliest terrorist attacks, including, most notoriously, the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270.
Yet, today, Qaddafi seems intent on putting his checkered past behind him. Now, rather than calling for "armed struggle" against Western imperialism, he has re-established diplomatic and economic ties throughout Europe. Rather than trying to destabilize his Arab neighbors, he wants to create a pan-African confederation modeled along the lines of the European Union. He has even done an about-face with regard to Israel. The man who once called for pushing the "Zionists" into the sea now advocates the forming of one nation where Jews and Palestinians would live together in peace.
"It is no longer acceptable or reasonable to say that the Jews should be thrown into the sea," he explains. "Even if you could do it, it's not acceptable. The solution is to join the two -- Israelis and Palestinians -- into one state, because once a state like this is established, then the interests of both sides are fulfilled." He pauses, gives a slight shrug. "They can call it Israetine."
There is also the hint that this new spirit of moderation has carried over into Qaddafi's personal life. Supposedly freed from the daily demands of governance -- he continues only as the nation's spiritual leader, he says, with no official powers -- he is able to indulge in life's simpler pleasures.
"I have time now for horseback riding," he says. "I've always liked horses. Also, I enjoy hunting sometimes, and I do quite a lot of reading. Also, going on the Internet. I have a Web site."
But certainly the most significant changes have been the overtures Qaddafi has made toward the United States. He was among the first Arab leaders to denounce the Sept. 11 attacks, and he lent tacit approval to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan. To the astonishment of other Arab leaders, he reportedly shared his intelligence files on Al Qaeda with the United States to aid in the hunt for its international operatives.
"It is strange," he muses, with an enigmatic smile, "as far as Libya is concerned, that we find ourselves today in one trench fighting one common enemy with America."
Just what is going on here? Has the Leader of the Revolution truly turned a new leaf? Or is he merely playing for new advantage in his longstanding campaign against the West? Is Qaddafi one of the Middle East's most astute and visionary thinkers -- as many throughout the developing world believe -- or is he simply an actor declaiming lines he believes his audience wants to hear?
Qaddafi's official residence in Tripoli lies in the innermost ring of the Bab el-Azziziya Barracks in the southern suburbs. Other residences exist for the famously peripatetic Leader in other parts of Libya, but it is here that he normally conducts his business when in Tripoli.
The barracks is virtually a city unto itself, a sprawling warren of walls and fortified bunkers and multistory buildings, and in its alleyways young children -- presumably the offspring of billeted officers -- play soccer and ride bikes. At the heart of the compound, past three rings of checkpoints manned by black-bereted commandos and plainclothes security men, is Qaddafi's inner sanctum, a roughly circular plot of land of some 10 acres girdled by watchtowers and an eight-foot concrete wall.
It is a surprisingly modest complex, bordering on the ratty, dominated by a round, dome-shaped building that resembles nothing as much as one of those awkward visitors' centers built in American national parks during the 60's. Off to one corner is Qaddafi's Bedouin tent, a sprawling, low-slung affair, with an RV parked alongside. Upon this humble tableau, the Leader has added a few embellishments. Eight camels wander about the unkempt grounds, while just outside the tent three oversize birdhouses accommodate a flock of homing pigeons.
A few hundred yards away is another curious sight: a three-story building with much of its facade shorn off, dangling ceiling tiles and electrical wires visible through its gaping holes. At one time, this was Qaddafi's official residence in Bab el-Azziziya. On the morning of April 15, 1986, however, American warplanes destroyed the building in retaliation for a bombing in Berlin that had been linked to Libyan agents; the attack took the life of Qaddafi's adopted 15-month-old daughter and very nearly killed the Leader himself. Ever since, the ruins have been preserved as a kind of monument to American perfidy -- with the implicit suggestion that Qaddafi, too, has been the victim of terrorism -- and are a favored backdrop for his infrequent media appearances.
Sitting with Qaddafi is an odd experience. He still possesses enough of the androgynous good looks and theatrical flair from his heyday in the 70's and 80's to make him instantly recognizable. From certain angles, he bears an eerie resemblance to that other aging former bad-boy celebrity, Mick Jagger.
Yet there is a kind of studied languor about Qaddafi that, initially, seems quite at odds with his firebrand reputation. As he sat at the table outside his tent, he spoke in a soft whisper, barely above a mumble, and his gestures were noticeably slow and deliberate. Was this an indication of the manic-depressive diagnosis his enemies have long sought to place on him or proof of his mystic, otherworldly aura -- or, for that matter, a bit of role-playing designed to produce that aura? In repose, he tilts his chin up at such an unnatural angle that it invites comparisons to his nation's greatest archvillain, Benito Mussolini. Another sign of his ethereal, off-in-the-clouds ways or, as some suggest, an attempt by a vain man to mask the wrinkles on his 60-year-old neck? And just what's with the hat and fancy dress? Supporting evidence to those rumors that he's gay? But how to reconcile those rumors with others that have him down as a world-class womanizer, the Jack Kennedy of the Sahara, or with the official line that lists him as a doting husband and father to his seven children?
But the longer one spends in Qaddafi's company, the more certain clues peek through. Behind the partial camouflage of his sunglasses and despite the aloof tilt of his head, he keeps intent watch over whoever is before him. As he grows more comfortable in a conversation, his voice takes on timbre and his gestures become more animated, and he will even occasionally indulge in a bit of self-deprecating wit. What emerges is the portrait of an extremely guarded and deliberate man, one who reveals of himself only what he wants to.
In fact, this has always been a hallmark of his personality. In the wake of the 1969 junior-officers coup that brought him to power, Qaddafi, then a mere 27-year-old lieutenant in the signal corps, waited for more than a week before publicly announcing himself as its leader. And it was subsequently disclosed that this had been no spur-of-the-moment power grab but rather a conspiracy more than a decade in the making, dating all the way back to the day a teenage Qaddafi picked up a copy of the Egyptian President Gamal Nasser's revolutionary treatise "Philosophy of the Revolution" and began planning his own Nasserite revolt with like-minded schoolmates. However much this tale, with its curious blend of zeal and caution, has been officially embroidered, it is obviously the way Qaddafi wishes to be viewed: implacable, a careful schemer, a man who likes to keep others in the dark for as long as possible.
"My very first impression of him was that he was extraordinarily intelligent," recalls David Mack, a junior American diplomat in Libya at the time of the 1969 coup and now the vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. "He clearly had this very strong charismatic hold over the other junior officers, and he spoke in this high, literary Arabic form that was very unusual among Libyans. But there was also something quite strange about him. He possessed a near-total recall from one meeting to the next, but at the same time he seemed to have a hard time keeping his attention focused. In the middle of meetings, you'd feel him just kind of drift off, and it was very difficult to tell what it meant."
One trait that Qaddafi shares with Saddam Hussein of Iraq is reclusiveness -- in a nation of about five million people, it seems few Libyans have ever actually seen the Leader in person -- so I carefully watched the interactions between him and his immediate retinue, the small handful of men who deal with him on a daily basis. In photographs taken of Saddam Hussein's inner circle, his aides appear pale and frozen-smiled, a collection of dead-men-walking awaiting the next purge. Among those around Qaddafi, by contrast, there was an excited air that veered toward the giddy, as if they were in the presence of some A-list celebrity and still couldn't quite believe their good luck.
It would be hard to imagine any nation that has undergone a more radical transformation than Libya has under Qaddafi. As late as the 1950's, it ranked as one of the poorest nations on earth -- and one of the most thoroughly dominated by foreigners. Whatever wealth did exist lay largely in the hands of some 110,000 Italian "settlers," while a pliant, Western-installed king had made the nation home to a profusion of foreign military bases, including Wheelus Field, the biggest American air base outside the United States. Even the exploitation of vast oil deposits in the eastern desert only accelerated Libya's vassal status, with huge tracts of the country going under lease to Western oil companies. For a young Arab nationalist like Qaddafi, the son of a Bedouin shepherd and the first member of his family to attend secondary school, the way forward was clear: revolution.
"We couldn't even consider Libya an independent country at that time," he recalled, referring to his fellow conspirators in the 1969 coup. "We felt it was our duty to liberate the country from the foreigners."
With broad popular support, Colonel Qaddafi and his Revolutionary Command Council shut down the foreign bases and ordered the Italian settlers from the country; in grisly payback for Mussolini's savage colonial war of the 1920's, in which an estimated quarter of the Libyan population died, they ordered the graves of Italian soldiers dug up and their bodies hauled away. When the foreign oil companies balked at Libyan demands for a greater share of profits, the military junta simply began nationalizing the oil fields.
At the same time, Qaddafi set out to propel his country into the 20th century. Bankrolled by a flood of oil money, schools and clinics and public housing complexes were built in the most remote reaches of the nation, sparking a sweeping social transformation that vastly enhanced the average Libyan's standard of living. In deference to the conservative Muslim clerics who still held great sway, alcohol and Western music were banned, but at the same time, Qaddafi brought about the emancipation of women; today, many urban women in Libya have dispensed with even the minimal Muslim head scarf and, according to Libyan authorities, women compose slightly more than half of all university students.
In a land riven by fierce clan loyalties and regional factionalism, such massive social upheaval naturally sparked resistance, and Qaddafi made it clear he wasn't interested in any free-ranging debate. Real and imagined "enemies of the people" were imprisoned and occasionally executed, while a vast network of secret policemen and informers kept watch for "reactionaries," a category broad enough to include Muslim fundamentalists, covetous fellow army officers and members of the Westernized business class. As intrigues and coup attempts multiplied, Qaddafi developed a pattern of constantly transferring military and government officials from post to post and endlessly redrawing administrative boundaries -- inflicting a certain chaos on the country but also ensuring that no one had the means to build a power base that might challenge his.
To all this, the American government was initially sanguine. Under the Nixon administration, the United States was primarily interested in Qaddafi's strong anti-Communist stance -- and, of course, Libya's light, low-sulfur crude -- so what the colonel chose to do in his spare time was considered his business. According to published reports, the American ambassador in Tripoli went so far as to betray a group of coup-plotting officers in the Libyan Army in 1971, first professing support for their plan and then handing their names over to Qaddafi.
But then Qaddafi's ambitions began to spill over Libya's borders. Taking up the mantle of pan-Arab leader, Qaddafi zealously pursued the dream of forming a United Arab Republic with a host of other Middle Eastern and African countries, and if his oil largess didn't sufficiently turn other leaders to his way of thinking, the colonel appeared ready to try for regime change. Throughout the region in the 70's came persistent accusations of internal meddling by Libyan agents, including the financing of guerrilla groups and assassination squads. By the end of that decade, Libya had fought wars with Egypt and Chad and had been accused of fomenting revolt in Tunisia.
What truly drew American ire, however, was Qaddafi's leadership role in the devastating 1973 Arab oil embargo and his calls for the annihilation of the state of Israel. In the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Libya became a safe haven for a variety of violent Palestinian guerrilla groups, notably Abu Nidal's Fatah Revolutionary Council, which used the country as a base for brazen attacks against targets in Western Europe. At the same time, Qaddafi was tilting Libya into the Warsaw Pact camp, buying billions of dollars of sophisticated Soviet weaponry and inviting in Soviet advisers, while giving support to a host of armed "liberation movements" around the world, including leftist guerrillas in Angola and Mozambique, the I.R.A. in Northern Ireland, the Basque group ETA in Spain and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines. By the end of the 70's, training camps situated in the Libyan desert were home to a virtual model United Nations of malcontents -- reportedly including Japanese Red Army "soldiers" next to Yemeni socialists next to members of West Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang -- while Libyan agents waged an assassination campaign against Libyan dissidents in the United States and Europe. And through it all was the smiling countenance of Muammar el-Qaddafi in his sunglasses and outlandish costumes, hobnobbing with Idi Amin, playing gracious host in Tripoli to visitors seemingly handpicked off Interpol's most-wanted list.
"I think he was enjoying himself immensely," says Mansour El-Kikhia, a Libyan emigre who teaches international relations at the University of Texas in San Antonio and who has long been one of Qaddafi's staunchest critics. "Think of it. You have $10 billion a year at your disposal to do with what you want. Every word you utter is God-given. Twenty-four hours a day, you see your face plastered everywhere. It's the ultimate power trip, and after a while the only way to satisfy it is to keep getting more."
By the 80's, however, Qaddafi had drawn the enmity of a powerful new adversary in President Ronald Reagan. While diplomatic relations with Libya had been scaled back under President Carter, Reagan severed them completely and then set out to lure Qaddafi into a confrontation by testing Libyan territorial claims off the country's Mediterranean coast. When Qaddafi took the bait, American planes shot down two Libyan fighters. Before the end of his first year in office, Reagan ordered all Americans remaining in Libya -- some 1,500, mostly oil workers -- to leave or face legal action, and in 1982 he placed a blanket embargo on Libyan oil.
At first, this seemed only to goad Qaddafi to further adventurism against the West. During an anti-Qaddafi demonstration in London in 1984, shots fired from inside the Libyan Embassy killed a British policewoman. The next year, Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship, killing one elderly American. The mastermind was later given a hero's welcome in Tripoli, and the United States charged Libya with involvement in the operation. On April 5, 1986, came the bombing of La Belle disco in West Berlin in which a Turkish woman and two American serviceman were killed, an attack that the C.I.A. quickly concluded was the handiwork of Libyan agents and that precipitated the American bombing that destroyed Qaddafi's home in the Bab el-Azziziya Barracks.
Thereafter, Libya became noticeably quieter, although not -- as American and British investigators would conclude -- reformed. On the night of Dec. 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown apart over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, killing all 259 on board and another 11 on the ground. After a massive three-year criminal investigation, two Libyan intelligence agents were charged as the principal conspirators. When Libya refused to hand the men over for trial in Scotland, the United States and Great Britain led a successful campaign in the United Nations for international sanctions. Although the U.N. sanctions were not nearly as sweeping as those already in place by the United States -- the U.N. imposed a travel ban and an embargo against oil-industry spare parts and technology -- they had the effect of virtually isolating Libya from the rest of the world. And just like that, with a speed and thoroughness that few had imagined, Qaddafi and his rogue state seemed to fairly fall off the map.
But just what caused Libya to suddenly go quiet? The answer, it seems, might provide lessons on how to handle other regimes that the United States finds troublesome, like those of Iraq and North Korea, and might suggest solutions far less messy than military invasion. Unfortunately, among Libyan experts, no single answer emerges.
"I think it was probably a combination of factors," says Mary-Jane Deeb, an Arab specialist at the Library of Congress. "Certainly, the U.N. sanctions were a big factor, in that Libya was now a true pariah state. Qaddafi could no longer play the David versus Goliath game, because the whole world was against him. At the same time, world oil prices had dropped significantly, so he simply didn't have the kind of money to throw around like before, and the sanctions compounded this by making everything much more expensive in Libya. Also, Qaddafi has just gotten older. He is no longer the young firebrand he once was, and if not wiser, he has certainly grown more sedate. I think for a long time he has yearned to be seen as a kind of elder statesmen in the region, and that can't happen when you've been essentially quarantined."
A darker view is taken by El-Kikhia, the Libyan exile at the University of Texas. "Qaddafi is a master of illusion," he argues, "and he learned very early on who to antagonize and who not to. After Lockerbie, it was not fashionable to overtly support terrorism. His novelty had worn off in Europe; all his neighbors were fed up with him and happy to see him put in a box -- they certainly weren't going to help him break the sanctions -- so now he has to reinvent himself once again. So he becomes a changed man, a man of peace, a defender of human rights." El-Kikhia gives a bitter little laugh. "I always believed that lying was a learned trait, but with Qaddafi I believe it is genetic."
Perhaps the only person who could provide a truly authoritative explanation for Libya's shift is Qaddafi himself, but on this point, he preferred to deal in abstractions. "The history of mankind is not fixed," he offered, "and it does not go at one pace. Sometimes it moves at a steady pace, and sometimes it is very fast. It is very flexible all the time. The past stage was the era of nationalism -- of the identity of one nation -- and now, suddenly, that has changed. It is the era of globalization, and there are many new factors which are mapping out the world."
In the heart of Tripoli lies Green Square, a massive expanse of asphalt illuminated late into the night by powerful floodlights. In the evenings, flower sellers line the curb to offer their wares, and half a dozen photographers -- each with his own brightly-painted ornamental carriage and sad-looking baby gazelle -- patiently await customers. Despite these small touches of life, the overall sensation is of standing in an emptying stadium parking lot.
On one side of Green Square is the old Ottoman citadel, now a very fine archaeological museum, and immediately behind it lies the old medina, a vast labyrinth of alleys and small shops that still retain some of the exoticness of old North Africa. On the wall leading into the medina are two enormous banners, one depicting a map of Africa with Libya outlined in a golden light and the other showing a stern-faced Qaddafi looming sphinxlike over a desert scene.
While such personality-cult icons are a common feature of many Arab and African nations, those in Libya are fundamentally different. Rather than merely extolling the virtues or eternal wisdom of the leader, nearly all the Qaddafi icons carry a broader exhortation to the Libyan people, with the Leader's unsmiling visage serving as a kind of visual punctuation to the message. Today, most of these exhortations have to do either with the fabulous benefits that have derived from the Great Man-Made River Project, a colossal water-collection scheme under way in the Libyan desert, or those to come from Qaddafi's newest passion, the creation of the African Union.
"Libya goes forward in union with Africa," Qaddafi reminds Libyans from a billboard on the road in from the Tripoli airport. The front of the new 20-dinar note carries a group portrait of Qaddafi and some 40 other African leaders, while the back carries a detailed map of the Great Man-Made River Project pipelines. The overall effect is to render Qaddafi not as glorious idol but rather as indefatigable teacher.
It is, in fact, this very aspect of Qaddafi's rule that can induce a rather profound sense of disjuncture in the visitor, for there is very little about the Libyan people to indicate a natural fit with either his steely determination or his grand ambitions. Most Libyans tend to be a decidedly relaxed and easygoing bunch, well attuned to the Mediterranean ethos that mandates spending great stretches of time sitting in cafes. They seem to have difficulty recalling that the West in general and the United States in particular are their historical foes; Libyans of all ages readily approach foreigners on the street and are delighted when they happen to stumble upon an American.
Despite their easy friendliness, there is an opaqueness -- or perhaps it is just exhaustion -- surrounding most Libyans. Over the past 33 years, they have seen their standard of living soar and then plummet and just now, with the suspension of the U.N. sanctions in 1999, start to creep back up again. They have had to grapple with countless generations of exhorting billboards, only to see those exhortations suddenly change: denunciations of Communism followed by expressions of friendship and solidarity with the Soviet Union; the government of neighboring Egypt as friend, enemy, friend, enemy and now friend again. Not surprisingly, it makes it hard to gauge what Libyans truly feel about their leader. During the many casual chats I had on the streets of Tripoli, I probed for at least a vague range of opinion on Qaddafi, but the universal response I received was one of admiration, a hint of national pride.
"Herodotus wrote that all new ideas come out of the desert," a young computer technician named Ali cheerily declared outside an Internet cafe in Tripoli. "With the Leader, we can see that this is really true."
This could, of course, be attributed to conditioning; given the pervasive informant apparatus in Libya, people may have learned to keep their thoughts on Qaddafi to themselves. At the same time, Libya is not North Korea, either in terms of its security apparatus or its isolation. A great many Libyans have traveled and lived abroad. Customers crowd the Internet cafes, and an even greater number have access to satellite television and CNN.
"I think you would find that all Libyans like the Leader very much," Ali said when I pressed him on the topic. "Both because we live better than our neighbors and because he has raised our standing in the world. Because of him, all the world knows about Libya."
Ali raised some valid points. Despite the deprivations imposed in the 90's by the sanctions, Libya still has one of the highest per-capita incomes in Africa and a far more equitable distribution of that income than most nations, including the United States. As for media exposure, how much ink has Morocco, a country with six times the population, garnered over the past 30 years?
This point was touched on by an Italian businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity, who has worked and traveled extensively in Libya over the past 20 years. "Qaddafi has made this place famous," he explained. "I've never met a Libyan who thought he was perfect -- they're quite aware of some of the stupid things he's gotten them involved in -- but I think most have a deep affection for him for the way he has stood up to the West. You can't forget that Libya before was a totally forgotten, beaten-down nation, and he changed that."
This fact was demonstrated anew when the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, came to Tripoli. The relationship between Libya and Italy has always been a paradoxical one, with Libyan fondness for its closest European neighbor complicated by a seething resentment for the horrific violence inflicted on them by Italian soldiers during the colonial conquest. Qaddafi has repeatedly demanded reparations for Italy's colonial misdeeds. Although the Italians have not yet agreed to make any payments, they are increasingly anxious over veiled Libyan threats to limit oil shipments. While Berlusconi's one-day visit was billed as a courtesy call, certainly one pressing item on his agenda was to mollify Qaddafi on the reparations question, and it was largely in hopes of a breakthrough that some 40 Italian journalists flew into Tripoli with the prime minister. They were in for a very frustrating day.
As Berlusconi was whisked off to Qaddafi's headquarters in Bab el-Azziziya, the attendant journalists followed aboard a government-supplied bus. Once past the barracks' three checkpoint perimeters, they were permitted into the inner compound, there to catch only a brief and very distant glimpse of the two leaders -- Qaddafi, resplendent in a purple robe, towering over the diminutive Berlusconi -- strolling along a path. After about an hour of this, the journalists were herded up and bused over to the Al Kabir Hotel, where they spent the long afternoon milling about the lobby, collecting whatever stray bits of news or rumor were afforded them. It was only when the bus suddenly reappeared around 8 p.m. to return them to Bab el-Azziziya that their spirits lifted.
During the ride, some journalists speculated that they were on their way to a photo-op session with the two leaders, while the more optimistic suspected a joint statement announcing that the reparations dispute had been resolved. As it turned out, everyone was wrong. Once admitted to the inner compound, the journalists were led across the grounds to the three-story ruins of Qaddafi's old home. Across its shattered facade, floodlights illuminated an enormous banner touting something called the Miss Net World beauty contest, with its hopeful slogan: "Beauty Will Save the World." Within the building's front hall stood the 22 beauty contestants -- along with the two Lebanese-Ukrainian brothers who were the pageant's promoters -- posing for photographs amid the detritus of shrapnel and shattered furniture. Rather than being off somewhere hammering out a deal with Berlusconi, Qaddafi had apparently spent much of the evening chatting with the beauty contestants in his Bedouin tent.
"It was really great," exclaimed Tecca Zendik, a statuesque 19-year-old from Southern California who represented the United States in the pageant. "He was very nice and really humble. They had put out this special chair for him, but instead he sat in this ordinary plastic chair like everyone else."
"And the tent was really amazing," added Miss United Kingdom, Lucy Layton. "It had these beautiful carpets and these silk tapestries on the walls. It was like something out of 'Arabian Nights."'
It appeared there had also been a bit of drama in the tent. When Qaddafi began a critique of American policy toward his country, including the 1986 air attack that killed his infant daughter, Tecca grew emotional and began to cry. Taking notice, Qaddafi moved her to the seat beside him and comfortingly patted her hand as he continued his talk.
"He wants me to come back again tomorrow night," Tecca said, looking as if she might start crying again. "I mean, this is all kind of overwhelming. I've never been out of the States before, and here I am meeting Qaddafi."
At some point, a rumor circulated among the bewildered journalists that Berlusconi, having failed to settle the reparations issue, had already left for Rome.
Over the next several days, the Tecca-Leader friendship blossommed: she was invited back to Bab el-Azziziya; he autographed a copy of his famous "Green Book" for her. While it was pretty obvious to everyone that Qaddafi was doing this for political reasons -- since the United States doesn't have official diplomatic relations with Libya, having Tecca in town was something of a coup -- it began fueling resentment within the small and, until now, close Miss Net World community, with some contestants fearing the fix was in for a Tecca victory. (That conspiracy theory was later dispelled: the crown went to Miss United Kingdom.)
As all of this went on, I tried to imagine what ordinary Libyans might make of it. Weird? Maybe. Embarrassing? Perhaps. But recalling my conversation with Ali, the young computer technician, I suspected there must also have been something kind of thrilling about it. Along with the dark, sad places Qaddafi has taken them, it must be kind of cool to have a leader who would send a visiting head of state away empty-handed while a 19-year-old girl from Southern California got two meetings and an autographed book.
During our conversation outside the Bab el-Azziziya tent, one of the Leader's aides approached with a tray of drinks: Arabic coffees, lemonades and sodas. Qaddafi waited for his guest to be served and then took a glass of plain water, which he didn't touch. Periodically during the interview, he brushed lazily at the air with his homemade fly whisk. A light breeze carried the odor of sheep dung from a nearby scattering -- which was puzzling, for in three visits to Bab el-Azziziya I never saw a sheep.
Any suggestion that Qaddafi is, in fact, insane would seem to be discounted simply by his longevity in office. Further doubt was raised by the very careful way he recounted his past, freely acknowledging those murky episodes that are now common knowledge and "forgiven," while gliding away from those that might still cause him trouble. For example, when I asked about his longstanding support of the I.R.A. -- British intelligence says that tens of millions of dollars worth of Libyan-supplied weapons flowed to the guerrilla group in the 70's and 80's -- he deftly converted the question into an illustration of how he is actually a man of peace.
"The ultimate objective of supporting an armed struggle," he said, "is to bring a problem to a conclusion, a peaceful solution. So when I saw that the British and Irish were talking to each other, that there was a chance to solve this problem by peaceful means, then there was no longer justification to keep giving support for armed action."
On more sensitive matters, Qaddafi made use of a handy protective shield: he holds no official position in the Libyan government; Libya is ruled by "the masses"; he can't be expected to know everything that goes on.
He also pointed out the elasticity of labels like "terrorism," arguing that he himself was its target in the 1986 American airstrike on Tripoli. It was on this particular topic that Qaddafi came as close to a tirade as at any time that I spent with him.
"For a superpower like America to elect somebody like Reagan, somebody who would do something like that?" He waved a hand in the direction of his ruined former home. "To kill a girl that was only 1 1/2 as she was asleep in her bed? I mean, for America to choose a president like this, a man who is not stable in his mind, it seems a lack of discipline in choosing who will be president. I don't know of any other society that, because somebody is, let's say, a good boxer, beloved by young people, he would be chosen president. O.K., he's a good boxer, say hello to him, applaud him, but don't make him president of the country. And it's not just me saying this. So many people are frightened by this, they put their hand on their heart because of what might happen in the future."
To this glitch in the American political system, the Leader offered a novel solution.
"It would be better for America to eliminate the elections and the president and all that," he said. "They should have people's congresses, people's committees, a jamahiriya" -- or "state of the masses," the organ that officially governs Libya -- "in America. This way, the American people would have the power, and if that happened, I'm sure they wouldn't be crazy, that they'd be good people."
Given Qaddafi's deadpan manner, it was hard to tell whether he was being serious -- but then, that has always been difficult with the Leader. After the 1997 Paris car crash that killed Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed, for example, Qaddafi charged that they had actually been murdered by British intelligence agents, and he demanded those agents be extradited to Libya to stand trial. Although this item ran in British and American newspapers as new proof of Qaddafi's lunacy, it is far more likely that he was engaging in a rather complicated joke, drawing a parallel to the two Libyan intelligence agents that Great Britain wanted extradited to stand trial for the Lockerbie bombing. Likewise, his suggestion to me that once the Israelis and Palestinians got it together and formed the state of Israetine, they could join the Arab League.
"They can take our place," he said with a shrug and a soft chuckle, "because we're leaving."
Where Libya is leaving to -- and on this point, too, Qaddafi could become quite expansive -- is the African Union.
The Leader described his new focus on Africa as a logical step of political and economic evolution: the moving out from the epoch of nationalism into that of regional integration. But Qaddafi clearly has more personal motives. He well remembers that it was his African neighbors to the south, rather than his Arab brethren, who came to Libya's aid during the hard days of the U.N. embargo. And after three decades of offering himself up as a pan-Arab leader only to be constantly rebuffed, perhaps he'll have better luck as a pan-African one; in the months before the inaugural African Union meeting in Durban, South Africa, he made a rather naked attempt to wrest the leadership away from President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.
The problem is, his people don't really seem to get it. Separated from black Africa by the vastness of the Sahara, most Libyans regard themselves as Libyan first, then as Arab, then as Mediterranean; being African rarely makes the list. It's something even Qaddafi's most steadfast loyalists have difficulty with. Shortly after delivering a party-line argument for why Libyans wholly embrace their African heritage and future, an Information Ministry official made an offhand slip when describing the mosquitoes that dwell in the central desert. "They're huge," he said, "but they don't carry disease, like in Africa."
Among the Tripoli cognoscenti -- or the cynical -- there is a quiet conviction that Qaddafi's pan-African passion, too, will eventually slide away, especially as the effects of the lifting of the U.N. sanctions fully filter through the economy and Libyans re-establish their traditional links across the Mediterranean. What would truly bury it, many suggest, is the day that the United States and Libya finally end their long standoff and normalize relations.
The very first roadblock toward that day, however, can be summed up in one word: Lockerbie.
At its mention, Qaddafi released a dispirited sigh.
"You see," he muttered, "this Lockerbie issue, it's an old issue, from the past. We should have found a solution to it once and for all a long time ago. It doesn't benefit any of us to keep chewing the cud over Lockerbie, talking about it all the time."
In Qaddafi's view, the matter should have been settled once Libya handed over the two Libyans indicted in the case, something it finally did in 1999 (one was ultimately convicted by a court in the Netherlands; the other, acquitted). But while this brought a suspension of the U.N. sanctions, it didn't affect the parallel American measures.
That is because handing over the suspects was only one of four new conditions the American government tacked onto its pre-existing Libya sanctions after Lockerbie. Another was for Libya to make financial restitution to the victims' families (a process it is now apparently near finalizing; the proposed settlement is for $10 million per victim, for a total $2.7 billion), and another was that it officially acknowledge responsibility for the bombing. This last condition has now emerged as the major sticking point, for the Libyans maintain that the charge simply isn't true. For its part, the American government is adamant that such an acknowledgment is nonnegotiable.
"We have made it absolutely clear to the Libyans that all four of these conditions have to be fulfilled before we can begin to address any other bilateral issues," a State Department official involved in Libya policy says, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There's no bargaining, no Northwest Passage around this, as far as we're concerned."
In Washington, there is a small but growing movement to gradually restore relations with Libya -- certainly the oil companies would love to get back to business -- and an increasing impatience with what some view as intransigence on the administration's part. The mea culpa provision in the Lockerbie conditions is a case in point.
"I don't think there's any question that Libya and Qaddafi have fundamentally changed over the past decade," says Milton Viorst, a journalist and Arab scholar, "and it's largely come about due to some very smart and successful policies the American government carried out. The problem is that we now seem incapable of capitalizing on that success." If the Libyans settle the Lockerbie reparations issue, Viorst continued, "that in itself should be seen as an acknowledgment of responsibility. It's unreasonable to expect them to get naked in public on this."
That sentiment is echoed by David Mack of the Middle East Institute: "I think we now have a great opportunity to make Libya an example in that part of the world of the very doctrine Bush has talked about. Let's turn it from a country that once sponsored terrorism and show the real benefits to be derived from renouncing that and standing with us."
This rehabilitation process is already nearly completed in Europe. In 1999, Libya settled claims brought by France over the 1989 bombing of a UTA commercial plane over Niger that killed 170, an attack that was linked to Libyan agents but that, by the terms of the $33 million settlement, required no overt admission of guilt. Libya has negotiated a settlement with Britain over the case of Yvonne Fletcher, the policewoman killed during the Libyan Embassy demonstration in 1984, a move that led to resumption of full diplomatic relations between the two nations. Italy and Libya have developed an entire network of economic and cultural ties.
No doubt economics is one impetus behind these moves by the Europeans. Oil isn't getting any more plentiful in the world, Libya is sitting on a lot of what's left and so oil-poor Europe has a strong incentive to make nice.
There is a deeper issue at work as well. Perhaps because of their geographical proximity to Libya and the rest of the Arab world, Europeans have come to view Muammar el-Qaddafi as a man who has long waged battle against the danger now facing everyone else: Muslim extremism. As far back as the 70's, he regarded the Muslim Brotherhood, then a nascent fundamentalist movement, as a menace and rooted its members from the country. In 1986, he reportedly closed down 48 Muslim institutions around Libya, charging that they were fronts for extremists; in 2000, he made similar accusations when he unleashed his secret police against opposition figures at the university in Benghazi, killing several and imprisoning dozens more. The fundamentalists have never been particularly fond of Qaddafi, either; by most estimates, they have been responsible for a sizable portion of the many assassination attempts made on him over the years. As a result, it is not just Qaddafi who talks of Libya being in "one trench" with the West in the campaign against fundamentalist terrorism, but many Europeans, too.
"The world has become a very dangerous place," a European diplomat in Tripoli says, "and when you look at Qaddafi today, I think you have to remember that old adage, that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Unfortunately, the Americans are very slow to think this way."
Maybe so. Then again, maybe all those who would urge a new spirit of American rapprochement toward Libya are rather missing the true focus of the debate. As the Bush administration has made increasingly clear, it has a number of other issues to take up with the Libyans even after any settlement on Lockerbie.
"Certainly, one enormous concern of ours," the State Department official says, "is their involvement in developing weapons of mass destruction. Beyond that, we also have major concerns about their human rights record."
In May, in a landmark speech titled "Beyond the Axis of Evil," Under Secretary of State John R. Bolton expanded the list of American enemies to include Libya, calling it a "rogue state" that is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, an accusation the Libyans heatedly deny. Over the past six months, C.I.A. analysts have repeatedly suggested that Libya is pursuing the development of biological and chemical weapons. And despite administration acknowledgment that Libya has largely severed its ties to terrorist groups, its "residual contacts" with some of those groups led to its inclusion on the State Department's 2002 list of nations that sponsor terrorism. If all of this is reminiscent of the campaign against Saddam Hussein, it may not be coincidental.
"I think Qaddafi has very good reasons to be nervous," says a political analyst who often takes part in policy discussions on Libya at the State Department. "The administration's attention right now is almost totally focused on Iraq, but after that, Libya is either No. 2 or No. 3 on the list of nations the hard-liners want to go after." The analyst recalls a meeting on Libya he recently attended at the State Department. "The topic turned to the issue of Lockerbie, and the seniormost official in the room said, 'Well, let's hope Qaddafi deals with it while there's still time.' There was no ambiguity in what he meant, but just in case someone didn't get it, he said it twice."
To the analyst, who has spent much of his career studying Libya, what he is now most struck by is Qaddafi's suddenly straitened circumstances. "I'm just not sure that he has that much to offer the United States," the analyst says. "O.K., he's anti-fundamentalist, but so are a lot of other Arab countries, and the primary target of any Libyan fundamentalists who are still around is not the United States but Qaddafi himself. Oil? The U.S. has gotten along quite nicely without Libyan oil for 20 years. Against that, you have this enormous litany of things he has done in the past that the U.S. may just never be in the mood to forgive."
Traces of this appraisal are echoed by the State Department official. While refusing to speculate on any future American action against Libya, he allows that Qaddafi faces a daunting task in ever fully mending fences with the United States. "He has a lot of strikes against him. He's made a number of positive steps in recent years, but there's still a tremendous amount that he needs to do."
Then again, Qaddafi has seen himself as a marked man since virtually the day he took power, and yet somehow he has managed to survive 33 years of internal intrigue, assassination attempts and radically shifting geopolitical alliances. He has also already outlasted six American presidents, and if he is at all nervous about outlasting this one, it appears tempered by a certain wily confidence.
Sitting outside his tent in Bab el-Azziziya, Qaddafi even felt comfortable enough to cast his own small element of doubt over his long, slow journey toward rehabilitation in the eyes of the world. When I asked how he would like to be remembered, he started with a platitudinous answer: "I would hope that people would feel that I haven't been selfish, that I have even forsaken myself in order to please and to help others. I do hope people would say that." But then Qaddafi stopped and gave a low chuckle. "And I do hope that I have actually been like this in reality."
- Scott Anderson is a frequent contributor to the magazine. His last cover article was about an Israeli commando unit on the West Bank.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company