Why the West has been cozying up to Moammar Gadhafi

Brian Stewart on why the West has been cozying up to Moammar Gadhafi.

My own experience in Libya was farcically limited by the fact that I only visited twice in one week and was kicked out both times.

It was a small incident, but it left me with a sense of the chameleon-like nature of the Gadhafi regime, something that does not seem to have changed much over the years.

I claim no honour in being expelled on those two occasions in 1986 as I was never even able to report from there, given the hectic pace of my arrivals and forced departures. 

I was simply one of a score of journalists who the regime welcomed one moment and then cast out a day later, before repeating the process all over again.

I remember shuddering to think what life must be like for Libyans, subject to the whims of Moammar Gadhafi or his henchmen and where one's fate can be sealed with the snap of the fingers.

My bizarre dance with the airport thugs epitomized in miniature the sense of quivering unreality around the Gadhafi regime — you never knew what you were going to get, and still don't.

But even as Gadhafi himself can seem removed from reality, he was clear on the fact that his survival rested on three key elements: vast oil wealth, brutal oppression and the willingness of Western democracies to bury their principles in order to win his favour.

Among European leaders, none has been closer to Gadhafi than Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, shown here reviewing an honour guard with the Libyan leader in Rome in August 2010. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

When his formerly staunch ally, the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1991, Gadhafi simply changed his colours once again, whistled for new friends and the West started creeping closer, in keen anticipation of the profitable trade that oil ensured.

In fairness, it was not all about money. The U.S. and Britain also valued Gadhafi, who was never an Islamist crusader, as a hard-edged counter to al-Qaeda.

In fact, after 9/11, his reported advice to Washington on Osama bin Laden was, for Gadhafi, uncharacteristically brief: "Kill him."

The 'king of kings'

Gadhafi also knew how to play the repentance card.

When he abandoned his nuclear weapons plans in 2003, with great fanfare, international sanctions against his regime were dropped and countries now came running with new or upgraded diplomatic missions.

Among the swift, Canada, which had already begun regular ministerial visits and was proclaiming Libya "a beautiful, peaceful country — full of potential."

Libya's strongman Moammar Gadhafi speaking on national television on Feb. 22, 2011, when he vowed to fight on against his opponents and die a martyr if it came to that. (Reuters)

In the rush for Gadhafi's favours, many Western democracies were surprising willing to brush aside his past acts of sponsoring terrorism and violence abroad, as well as to overlook his horrifying record of brutal repression at home.

Small wonder his already apparent megalomania seemed to know no bounds as formerly unfriendly governments now sought earnest trade and philosophical talks with the leader who modestly called himself "dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of all Muslims."

Getting chummy

No Western nation has more to hold Gadhafi accountable for than Britain, and yet none did more to act chummy with the dictator than the previous Tony Blair government. It was quite a past to forget.

In the 1970s, Gadhafi shipped arms to the IRA for its bloody campaigns in Northern Ireland as well as on the British mainland.

In 1984, Libyan agents shot and killed a British policewoman outside the Libyan embassy in London, setting off an 11-day siege. It took Libya 15 years to admit even vague responsibility for the incident, and the two agents involved went on to senior government posts.

Four years later, Libya committed mass murder right over Britain, when its agents blew up a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

A Libyan intelligence agent was convicted of the atrocity and the country's former justice minister said this past week that he has proof Gadhafi ordered the bombing directly, something that has long been assumed. 

Then British PM Tony Blair meeting with Gadhafi in his tent near the Libyan leaders home town of Sirte in May 2007. (Leon Neal/Reuters)

But none of that seems to have stopped the former Labour government from trying to normalize relations with Libya in recent years. The convicted Lockerbie bomber was released two years ago "on compassionate grounds" because of a late-state cancer diagnosis.

In 2007, while still prime minister, Blair made a special, very public visit to Gadhafi, meeting him in one of his iconic tents.

The whole tone was of past differences buried, and it coincided with British Petroleum resuming work in Libya after three decades.

Incredibly, Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, followed up by ordering the elite British SAS to train Gadhafi's special forces. Let's hold that thought a moment.

Ignoring the record

For its part, Washington harshly criticized Britain for cozying up to a dictator it once loathed for sponsoring worldwide terrorism. But recently, U.S. companies have helped bolster the regime.

General Dynamics now supplies "sophisticated communications systems" to those very same Libyan special forces — the Khamis al-Gadhafi's 32nd Brigade — which, according to a WikiLeaks "is considered the best-equipped and most capable of defending the regime."

The implications of this are chilling. Essentially Britain and the U.S. have assisted in improving the skills of the praetorian guard of one of the world's most brutal rulers.

France and Russia have also been trying to sell Libya arms, while Italy remained, until these past weeks anyway, Gadhafi's firmest European friend.

A critical point here is that these countries not only overlooked Gadhafi's violent past but also, within Libya at least, an equally violent present.

There is absolutely no way they can claim ignorance of this fact, any more than successive Canadian governments since 2002 could shrug in innocence.

For Libya is not just despotic, it is the very worst one in the region, according to the U.K.'s Freedom House, which tracks oppression worldwide. It is considered worse that Syria or Iran, and, indeed, now ranks only below Burma and North Korea in terms of state oppression.

Not only are political parties banned, but membership in an opposition party carries the death penalty.

Political prisoners are held incommunicado, tortured and often simply "disappear." An estimated 1,200 were massacred at once in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison in 1996.

Last year as some countries sought ever closer ties with Libya, the top Amnesty International official in the region begged world powers to reconsider: "Libya's international partners cannot ignore Libya's dire human rights record at the expense of their national interests," he said.

But that, of course, is precisely what they have done in recent years.

They ignored his real record in order to build economic ties and new military and counterterrorist ones. All this helped Gadhafi to endure, and just might leave him still with the gruesome means to survive.