Sunday, February 15, 2004

Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s recent political about-face regarding his country’s weapons of mass destruction and his willingness to relinquish them has caught much of the world by surprise. It was a rare bit of good news emanating from an otherwise tumultuous part of the world.

In truth, the Libyan leader’s decision to alter his image as the rebel with multiple causes is nothing but his waking up to the realities of 21st-century, post-Cold War, economic Realpolitik.

Col. Gadhafi viewed himself as the Great Revolutionary leader of the Third World — a sort of Arab Che Guevara. He might have lacked Che’s charisma, and to compensate for that, Col. Gadhafi had oil and wielded its economic powers as a weapon.

Col. Gadhafi fought on a number of fronts simultaneously. He financed a number of groups, from Palestinian extremists to African rebels to the Irish Republican Army. Along the way, he managed to irritate almost everyone, from the United States to the European powers and most Arab states, who regarded him with suspicion and considered him marginal, due to his unconventional behavior.

During a 1990 Arab summit in Cairo, soon after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Col. Gadhafi showed up escorted by a phalanx of sexy female bodyguards. He wore a single white glove on his right hand, which he said was to prevent him from “soiling his hands when forced to shake the hand of anyone who had exchanged a handshake with an Israeli.” It was a thinly covered insult directed at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and any other Arab leaders who might have had diplomatic exchanges or meetings with Israel.

His costly military adventures, as for example his prolonged venture into the Aozou Strip in northern Chad, failed miserably and squandered his oil funds. His continued support for terrorism eventually led to an attempt by the Reagan administration to eliminate him. After a terrorist bomb in a German nightclub killed several American servicemen in 1986, President Reagan dispatched U.S. Navy planes to bomb his residence. Col. Gadhafi escaped unhurt, though one of his adopted daughters was killed.

His support of terrorism also led to the United Nations sanctions being imposed on Libya in 1992, which caused great harm to the country on a number of fronts, not least on its economy. Though the sanctions were lifted in April 1999, Libya continued to figure on the U.S. State Department’s list of countries supporting terrorism and pursuing programs aimed at acquiring and building WMDs.

Col. Gadhafi’s socialist economy depends primarily on revenue from Libya’s oil industry, which according to the U.S. government contributes to practically all export earnings and about a quarter of Libya’s gross domestic product (GDP).

But despite lucrative revenues from its petrochemical industry and a relatively small population of just 5.5 million, which until recently enjoyed one of the highest per capita GDPs in Africa, the country has felt the strain of U.S.-imposed sanctions and could no longer continue as a world pariah.

Little if any, of the millions of dollars from oil revenues trickled down in Libyan society. Restrictions on imports and gross economic mismanagement have led to shortages of basic goods at times — a real problem in a country that imports up to 75 percent of its food.

The rise in world oil prices over the last three years has somewhat helped Libya, as its revenues increased. This has partly improved the macroeconomic balance, but has had little overall economic effect.

Given the grim results of Col. Gadhafi’s failed politics, there is little surprise he decided to “come out of the cold.”

The Bush administration would like to take credit for Libya’s sudden change of heart that saw it recently admit to having WMD programs and its willingness to give them up and re-establish ties with the West.

Mr. Bush’ supporters advocate that if the administration had not routed Saddam, Col. Gadhafi might have still kept his WMD programs. And it may even be that Saddam’s demise speeded Col. Gadhafi’s decision. But, in truth, negotiations between Libya and Britain were in the works for several months.

Perhaps the person who deserves the most credit in bringing about these drastic changes in Libya is Seif al-Islam, Col. Gadhafi’s son, and some say his political heir.

The leader’s second son heads the Gadhafi Foundation, a charity that tries hard to project a positive image of Libya. Seif al-Islam, through his foundation, has been active in attempting to obtain the release of Western hostages in the Philippines and Afghanistan.

However, when the son tried to negotiate release of a group of Western hostages detained in the Philippines by the Abu Sayyaf Group in exchange for payment, the ransom only encouraged the kidnappers to take more hostages.

Now 61 years old, Col. Gadhafi is reportedly grooming Seif al-Islam, 31, to eventually take over the reins of power.

The son, one of five, is said to be very different from his father. He always is impeccably dressed, usually in designer suits, and well-mannered. He was educated in Switzerland and Austria, where he studied economics and engineering. In recent years, he has toured many Western capitals, laboring to give Libya a better image. He reportedly sued a London newspaper that accused him of distributing counterfeit money in Iran.

Some observers believe Seif al-Islam played a fundamental role in Libya’s new rapprochement with the West and in convincing his father to give up WMDs. Last week, Libya’s foreign minister was received at No. 10 Downing Street. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected soon to visit Tripoli and welcome Col. Gadhafi back into the international community.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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