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The NS Profile: Muammar al-Gaddafi

The‘‘mad dog of the Middle East’’ is back in the spotlight, 41 years after he took power.

Shortly before he died in 1970, the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser said: "I rather like Gaddafi. He reminds me of myself when I was that age." As a teenager growing up in the desert outside Sirte, Gaddafi had been an avid listener to Nasser's inflammatory Arab nationalist broadcasts on Radio Cairo. His school had even expelled him for organising a student strike in support of the Egyptian leader. Here was the "leader of the Arabs", who had humiliated the old colonial powers during Suez and brought the promise of unity to the region, giving his blessing. To the young colonel, still not 30, there could have been no greater compliment.

Gaddafi seemed worthy of the older man's mantle when he came to power in Libya on 1 September 1969, deposing the weak, pro-western king Idris while the monarch was receiving medical treatment abroad. By the end of 1970, he had expelled between 15,000 and 25,000 of the despised Italians who had occupied Libya from 1911-41, removed the US and British military bases, and turned Tripoli's Catholic cathedral into the Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque.

Forty years on, Gaddafi is the object of international vilification once again. Yet America's fury at the Lockerbie bomber's triumphant repatriation does not change the fact that the Libyan leader is now a friend of the west. He has held meetings with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and Silvio Berlusconi greeted him with a warm embrace when his plane touched down at Ciam­pino Airport in Rome in June. The former "mad dog of the Middle East", as Ronald Reagan called him, is even due to address the UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September. He has stopped offering sanctuary to and sponsoring terrorists, and traded his WMD programme for the normalisation of relations with the west.

None of this would have been conceivable during Gaddafi's early years in power. By the late 1960s, oil revenues were rapidly increasing - Libya overtook Kuwait as the world's fifth-largest exporter in 1969 - and Gaddafi played an important role in the 1973-74 oil crisis in which Opec cut production and raised prices, by leading the embargo on shipments to the US. At the same time as making good on his promises to provide free education and health care (as well as subsidised housing) for Libya's small population, he could back his ambition for regional hegemony with money, providing subsidies to Egypt and to others he saw as allies in the fight against Israel.

But Gaddafi did not limit his aid to Israel's enemies. Over time, it seemed any group that styled itself as a freedom movement could call on the Libyan state purse, from the IRA to the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines. Although his dreams of a pan-Arab merger with Tunisia, Egypt and Syria failed, Gaddafi's influence was felt far and wide. This frequently alarmed his neighbours, as did his erratic behaviour. In 1973, for instance, the QEII set sail from Southampton to Haifa full of Jewish passengers celebrating the 25th anniversary of the State of Israel. According to Nasser's successor Anwar al-Sadat, Gaddafi ordered an Egyptian submarine temporarily under his command to torpedo the liner: a directive countermanded only when Sadat ordered the sub to return to base in Alexandria.

Those who have met the "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution" over the decades describe him as "dramatic", "charismatic", "camp" (a television reporter who interviewed him in the 1970s told me he was convinced Gaddafi was wearing eyeliner) and always "unpredictable". He surrounds himself with female bodyguards, and broke wind noisily throughout an interview with the BBC's John Simpson. In March, he stormed out of an Arab summit in Qatar, declaring himself "the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of all Muslims". Such behaviour can, but should not, obscure the reality that he presided over a police state that dealt brutally with anyone perceived to pose a threat. By 1975, Sadat was already describing him as "100 per cent sick and possessed by the devil".

But for all Gaddafi's rashness during this decade (he also launched abortive invasions of Chad in 1972 and 1980), initially at least the west gave the young colonel's new regime the green light. "We thought he was a bit left-wing," says a British source, "but not too bad, and that we could deal with him." The US even supplied him with intelligence support. Very soon after the coup that brought him to power, the CIA warned him of a plot within the Revolutionary Command Council, Libya's supreme authority, allowing him to arrest and imprison the ring­leaders. News travelled, and Gaddafi gained a reputation in the region for enjoying America's favour. Although this had mostly evaporated by the end of the decade, Billy Carter, brother of the US president Jimmy Carter, still attended celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of Gaddafi's accession on 1 September 1979. In one of the many embarrassments he caused his brother, it was later revealed that Billy had received a $220,000 loan from the Libyan government.

The change was decisive once Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office in 1981. That August, the US air force shot down two Libyan fighter planes in disputed waters in the Mediterranean. Reagan ordered US citizens to leave the country and refused US passport holders permission to travel there. By the end of the year, his administration was claiming that Libya had plans to assassinate the president and, if that failed, would target other senior officials such as the vice-president George H W Bush, the secretary of state Al Haig and the defence secretary Caspar Weinberger.

After four more years of skirmishes and ineffective sanctions, Reagan seized on a specific incident that he felt could justify a forceful strike on the Libyan regime: the bombing in April 1986 of a West Berlin disco packed with off-duty US servicemen. The US reprisal, in which Gaddafi's adopted daughter Hanna died, was controversial. There were suggestions - since given more credence - that Syria or Iran was behind the disco bombings. No European ally apart from Britain would give permission to the US to use its bases to launch the attack. Today, the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski, chairman of the parliamentary all-party Libya group and author of a forthcoming biography of Gaddafi, says: "More questions should have been asked in parliament. We were rather gung-ho in supporting the attack."

As far as Britain was concerned, two incidents confirmed Gaddafi as the leader of a terrorist state: the fatal shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher by a gunman inside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984, and the 1988 downing of the Pan Am jet at Lockerbie. These continue to be the main stumbling blocks to Gaddafi's final rehabilitation in the eyes of the west, as the international row over the repatriation from a Scottish prison of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has demonstrated. "The man who shot PC Yvonne Fletcher has been identified in Tripoli," says Kawczynski. "For us to let them have al-Megrahi without insisting on a statement about her is ludicrous." The Tory MP is also working with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to try to secure compensation for the victims of Libyan-funded IRA atrocities. He says he has repeatedly raised these issues with government ministers, but has been rebuffed. "'Don't rock the boat,' was what one of them said to me."

The story of how the "mad dog" came in from the cold goes back to the 1990s, when Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela persuaded the Libyan leader that the two Lockerbie suspects should stand trial (al-Megrahi's co-defendant was acquitted). The UN immediately suspended sanctions it had imposed in 1992 and 1993. When Gaddafi was quick to condemn the attacks of 11 September 2001 as acts of terrorism, urging Libyans to donate blood for use by American victims, it seemed another remarkable volte-face by a man who would once have been expected to revel in US misfortune.

In fact, it was a sign that Gaddafi was never the irrational maverick some liked to say he was. Sanctions had hit the Libyan economy hard, depriving the country of the specialists and the markets it needed to exploit its oil wealth; and two other factors had left him short of allies. As the diplomat and Middle East specialist Sir Mark Allen, who was one of the UK's negotiators in the talks that led to Britain's rapprochement with Libya, writes in his book, Arabs: "At the end of the cold war, the Arab left was stranded . . . The region was retuning . . . The reference points were not left or right, monarchical tradition or the promises of socialism, but fidelity to the example of the early Muslim community."

After Egypt and Israel made peace at Camp David, Gaddafi turned ever closer to the Soviet Union, which stationed thousands of military advisers inhis country and from which he bought billions of dollars of arms. But once the USSR collapsed, says Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, "he saw that if Uncle Sam was going to give him a kick, there was no one there to protect him". Nor was it conceivable that he could embrace the Islamists who, in fact, posed a threat to his rule. "He was deeply concerned about the threat from al-Qaeda," says Mike O'Brien, who as a Foreign Office minister was the first member of a British government to meet Gaddafi in 2002. "He had always promoted a more secularist, nationalist agenda."

He had set out his views at great length during his first decade in power, in the three volumes of his Green Book. His "Third Universal Theory" supposedly combined Islam with socialism - though the loose structure he presided over, which allowed for relatively free discussion by his associates before the leader took the final decision and retired to his tent in the desert, could be viewed as owing just as much to Arab, tribal forms of decision-making. Yet however one views Gaddafi's philosophy, he has long set his face against the Islamists, and he acted against ex-mujahedin fighters returning from Afghan­istan in the mid-1990s when other Arab states welcomed them home. Indeed, Gaddafi was the first leader to call for an international arrest warrant for Osama Bin Laden in 1998.

Once Gaddafi took the step to open up and dismantle his WMD programme, and then agree compensation for victims of Lockerbie, the way was open for the inter­national community to welcome Libya back. Gaddafi's son and possible heir, Saif, is clear about the path Libya is now taking. "The future is with more liberalism, more freedom, with democracy," he said in an interview with Time magazine. "This is the evolution of the entire world, and you either go with it or be left behind."

O'Brien, for one, is convinced. "Gaddafi is an intelligent guy who has been in control for 40 years," he says. "He realised that the only way to extradite himself from his difficulties was to use Libya's oil and gas wealth. This was realpolitik. He recognises that the world has changed and that he has to change with it."

For those who believe the west made a disastrous mistake in opposing the wave of nationalist politicians who came to power in the Middle East from the 1950s onwards, there is an irony. Gaddafi is the last of that generation, and while others who cloaked themselves in the rhetoric of Nasser have fallen, failed or died, it is the young man once praised by the Egyptian president who now appears to be becoming the kind of Arab leader with whom we can, and with whom we wish, to do business.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror