A Chat With Mu`ammar Qaddafi
Jude Wanniski
March 29, 1999


Memo To: Editors of Foreign Affairs
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Reviewing Milton Viorst

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I have promised you on your March/April issue. Having flunked the first two articles I read, by Martin Feldstein and C. Fred Bergsten, both dreadful economists, I was pleased to give an "A" to the Gary Wills piece about current U.S. policy, "Bully of the Free World." I now am delighted to inform you that veteran Middle East correspondent Milton Viorst also gets an "A" for slogging across the desert to get an interview with "Qaddafi in His Tent." The fact that our "Bully" of a government allows only journalists to travel to Libya after President Reagan in 1986 decided to break off relations with it makes it all the more important that someone like Viorst will actually take the trouble to go. Since the Reagan administration made the assumption that Qaddafi was encouraging or even directing terrorist acts against the West, it took the further step of bombing Libya, hoping to blow him up in his tent, but instead only killing his adopted daughter. I'd forgotten about the daughter until I read the Viorst piece, which notes that Qaddafi by all accounts still grieves over her.

Even before we get to the meeting, Viorst offers some nice touches. The first is how, having "decided on the journey, I went to the State Department for a briefing. Officials there acknowledged that they knew little about what was going on in Libya." On the road, "[Qaddafi's] full-color portrait in assorted heroic poses appeared intermittently at crossroads and traffic circles, but compared to Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Hafiz al-Asad in Syria, Qaddafi was scarcely visible." This is the first sign that, at least viewed through Viorst's eyes, we are going to like Qaddafi. I've defended a lot of bad actors in my life, without knowing whether or not they were likeable. Because I'd never had much of a feel for Qaddafi, I for some time had assumed he was as bad as he is supposed to be. It was not until I decided that the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan was really a good man, nothing like the propaganda picture of him that has been driven into our psyche by our Political Establishment, that I began to think I should withhold judgment on the Libyan "dictator." When I read two years ago that the Vatican had re-established diplomatic relations with Tripoli, I warmed even further. If Qaddafi is okay by the Pope, maybe he ain't so bad. I've learned over the years that many of the "monsters" I've read about in the newspapers have been tried and convicted as such by the Establishment, simply because they interfere with a central political objective of the powers that be -- those who speak their minds especially seem to be cast as "Hitlers" or "butchers" or "thugs."

Viorst makes this instantly clear in the first mention of his meeting with Qaddafi. Entering his tent, he finds a man who is garbed in clothes that can almost be described as tattered: "Libyans say they love Qaddafi for the austere life he leads. The setting seemed to vindicate this reputation." He also discovers that Qaddafi is not even a dictator! He quotes one Libyan: "You think Qaddafi makes all the decisions...We respect him as the leader of our revolution. He brought us schools and roads and clinics. He changed the face of our country. He commands attention. But Qaddafi is not a dictator, like Saddam Hussein. It is the congresses that rule, often rejecting his ideas. They routinely criticize government actions. Our practice, we know, is not up to our theory, but we get better each year."

Viorst first sees Qaddafi "leaning on a metal crutch," perhaps a wound from a recent assassination attempt, he thinks. They shake hands. "I was aware of Qaddafi's reputation for impulsiveness and hyperbole. But since I had been invited to Libya to report on its efforts to return to the world community, I expected him to indulge me with soft and soothing words, I could not have been more wrong." When he asks if it is true that Libya had embarked on a new course, Qaddafi looks at the horizon through the flaps of the tent and says in a controlled monotone, his lips barely moving: "America unfortunately treats us as if the world was the way it used to be. Americans accept that changes have taken place since the end of communism, but not in their treatment of Libya. So in the end, they take a racist and fanatical position, similar to the way Hitler treated the Jews. We feel that America is much like Hitler. We have no explanation for this, except that it is a religious, fanatical, racist positions. Some analysts call this a new colonialism. But colonialism is colonialism, and it is always unjust. It is how we were treated by the Italians, Algeria by the French, India by the British. This is imperialism, and we seem to be entering a new imperialist era."

This is just a review, but it would be so nice if you had this whole piece on your website, so my audience could read into the next layers of Qaddafi's mind. I find he makes perfect sense when he is asked whether Libya was responsible for the many terrorist incidents of which it was accused in the 1980s. "[H]e issued no denial. ‘These incidents that you mention belong in the past.' he said. ‘Once Abu Amar [Yasir Arafat] was wanted. Now he enters the White House with all the trappings, the music, the red carpet treatment.' I thought I detected a note of envy in his voice. ‘They say Libya is a terrorist country. But now that is illogical, not reasonable. All these things are of the past, an era that is over. The bombing of the French plane took place during a time of war in the region -- Libya, Chad, France. It was similar to America's downing of the Iranian plane in the Gulf. The Israelis shot down a Libyan aircraft over the Sinai. The Soviet Union shot down a Korean airplane. It was a time of war. So how come you forgot all about that and you just mention the charges against Libya? There is no explanation for that. We go back to the racist, fanatical complexes of America.'"

How nice to have a man who speaks his mind. Viorst parenthetically writes that he almost regrets having to report what Qaddafi has told him, because he assumes it will be bad for Libya's attempts to get the sanctions lifted, which he clearly would like to see happen. Qaddafi is at his best when he is asked if the UTA and Lockerbie bombings were not deliberate efforts to kill. "Look at your logic, the American logic. Those who use missiles or fighter planes and rockets are legitimate. Those who use explosives or small bombs are considered terrorists. If we use the same logic, Usama bin Ladin will use cruise missiles, the same weapon used by America, and he will not be accused of being a terrorist. Whether we were responsible for bringing down the French plane will be decided by a French court. We don't say anything about it. The same is true of Lockerbie. I can't answer to whether Libya was responsible. Let's let the court decide. Libya has not been convicted of any terrorist act up to this moment. If they accuse us, they have to prove their charges."

What marvelous journalism. Perhaps it was coincidence, but this article had not been out for more than a few weeks and the Libyans agreed to hand over the two men accused of the Lockerbie terrorism. It was clear from the Viorst account that Qaddafi himself really was not involved in the thinking or planning of the negotiations that went on, that Viorst seems accurate in stating that Colonel Mu'ummar is revered by the Libyan people, but that they have a rough approximation of a parliamentary government, and a leadership class that has the authority to do such things. Qaddafi comes across in the piece as seeming curious about the outcome of the trial of the Lockerbie accused, wanting to know himself what really happened. We'll all soon find out, and I find myself rooting for the Libyans, not that they are found innocent if they are really guilty, but that justice is served, and the sanctions against the Libyan people are lifted. Thanks editors, and thank you Milton Viorst.