When Tony Blair went to Libya to meet Colonel Gaddafi in March 2004, the BBC’s then political correspondent Andrew Marr hailed the visit as a ‘pivotal moment in the history of the region’. Nearly two years on, that judgement has a distinct air of hyperbole, yet there have been some interesting developments.
For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Libya was seen as an international pariah because of its links with violent extremist groups and its military adventurism in neighbouring states such as Chad. Robert Reagan went so far as to call Colonel Gaddafi ‘the most dangerous man in the world,’ and tried to assassinate him in a bombing raid. The British had little love for the Colonel either, given the fatal shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan People’s Bureau in London in 1984.
But the thing which brought the wrath of the international community down on the Libyan leader’s head was the Lockerbie bombing. This led to economic sanctions against Libya, including a ban on international flights in and out of the country. These were only lifted when two suspects were brought to trial and financial compensation was put on the agenda.
Post 9/11, however, Libya made two policy shifts which helped its rehabilitation in the West. First, Colonel Gaddafi renounced weapons of mass destruction; then he said he would join in the War against Terror. The latter was as startling a volte face as that by the former President Samora Machel of Mozambique, who suddenly abandoned Marxism-Leninism in favour of Thatcherism in the late 1980s.
But has Libya really changed? Or is this the sort of shadow-boxing that is part of Colonel Gaddafi’s unique brand of leadership, which has kept him in power for 36 years?
Certainly, Libya has realigned itself geopolitically. Shortly after the 1969 revolution that brought the young band of army officers into power in Tripoli, the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser died and Colonel Gaddafi saw himself as taking over the mantle of champion of pan-Arabism.
More recently, though, he has given up hope of achieving any sort of co-ordinated community across the Arab world, so he has looked south to sub-Saharan Africa instead. He has become one of the leading voices within the African Union (the successor to the Organisation of African Unity) and dreams of the whole continent becoming a coherent force in the world stage. One certainly can’t criticise him for lack of ambition.
But where does this leave Libya’s relations with the West? Officially, the country is opening up to Europe and North America, though at the time of writing, US passport-holders are still not being allowed in as tourists. Western countries have been falling over each other to take advantage of the new commercial opportunities offered by the end of sanctions and Libya’s increased wealth, thanks to higher oil prices.
Yet Libya remains quite unlike anywhere else on earth, not so much part of the international community as a spectator sitting firmly on the sidelines. It is not just that Libya has kept the trappings of globalisation at bay; Arabic is the only permissible language, for example, which means that even international hotels are unrecognisable if you can’t read Arabic. Or that green – the colour of Islam, as well as of the revolution – is all pervasive.
Internal security is the regime’s top concern. Secret policemen are still very much part of everyday life, though as they are all built like extras from a James Bond film and invariably wear dark glasses, you can spot them a mile off. But ordinary people have to watch what they say and do. There is no true political debate. Moreover, as the Colonel seems fairly hail and hearty, the current situation could go on for a long time yet.
For the West, the most disquieting aspect of all this is the Libyan leader’s unpredictability. Having pursued so many different priorities and impulses over nearly four decades, there is no guarantee he won’t suddenly veer off in another direction. But in Britain and among our EU partners there is a feeling that there is a better chance of averting more nasty surprises if we are on reasonably cordial terms with Libya. In fact, one could say that the late Lyndon B Johnson’s earthy but graphic maxim about J Edgar Hoover is singularly apt when applied to Colonel Gaddafi: that it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.