Gaddafi’s turbulent US relations

Libya has become a key player despite decades-long image of political pariah.

Libya marks on September 1 the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Gaddafi to power [AFP]

A weedy, overgrown backyard in Englewood, New Jersey seemed likely for a time last week to become the scene of the latest flashpoint in Libyan-US relations.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, is planning his first visit to the US since he seized power in a military coup 40 years ago. He is set to address the yearly UN General Assembly in September.

Now, wherever the long-time Libyan leader goes, he likes to take a little bit of Libya with him – in the form of a huge, air-conditioned Bedouin-style tent. He pitched his pavilion in the Kremlin during a visit to Moscow. In Rome, the tent sat prominently in a public park.

Gaddafi initially planned to set up camp in Manhattan’s Central Park, but Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, said no dice.  So a squadron of gardeners and construction workers descended on the dilapidated estate of Libya’s UN ambassador in lovely Englewood, a suburb of 30,000 people with a large Orthodox Jewish community.

You can guess what happened next. Protests were organised. Petitions were passed around. Lawsuits flew hither and yon.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Gaddafi backed down. There will be no tent party in Englewood, and the Colonel will stick to Manhattan on his visit.

Intense mutual enmity

In depth

 Profile: Abdel Basset al-Megrahi
 Libyans hail al-Megrahi return
 Bomber’s homecoming slammed
 Release prompts anger and relief
  Video: Al-Megrahi’s release sparks row
  Video: Al-Megrahi speaks out
  Video: Opinions divided over Lockerbie appeal
 Video: Lockerbie remembered
 Al-Megrahi statement in full

If only all of the disputes between Libya and the US had ended so peacefully. It has been a relationship marked almost from the very start by intense mutual enmity, and both countries have committed many acts of violence toward one another over the decades.

Only in very recent years, in a remarkable turnaround, have Libya and the US learnt to live with one another.

Shortly after seizing power, Gaddafi expelled foreign military forces from his country, forcing the US to shut down its Wheelus Air Force Base.

The Libyan leader quickly became a dabbler and financier in all sorts of radicalism, giving money, training and safe havens to a diverse array of revolutionaries including hard-line Palestinian revolutionary groups like George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP) and the Abu Nidal faction.

Gaddafi provided support to Colombia’s M-19 guerrillas, armed Chilean leftist groups, the Irish Republican Army, and a variety of African armed movements.

He offered a seaside villa to Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian-born assassin of US Senator Robert Kennedy, should he ever be paroled from his life sentence in a California prison.

He infuriated Arab leaders ranging from Yassir Arafat to Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, whom he once referred to as a pig.

‘Sponsor of terrorism’

In 1999, Libya handed over two agents to the Lockerbie bombing investigation [AFP]

In 1979, an angry mob burned down the US Embassy in Tripoli. Soon thereafter the US severed diplomatic ties and designated Libya a “state sponsor of terrorism” and enforced economic sanctions on the African state.

But within a few years, shooting and bombing replaced diplomatic slaps and name calling.

In 1981, two Libyan warplanes fired on US navy jets in the Gulf of Sidra, an area claimed as territorial waters by Libya. The Libyan planes were shot down.

The Libyan planes were shot down. Five years later, in a similar incident, the US claimed Libya targeted its aircraft patrolling the Gulf of Sidra. US naval forces sank two Libyan patrol boats and bombed a Libyan missile base.

In April 1986, a bomb exploded in the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, killing three people including two US military personnel. Evidence of Libyan involvement was discovered and years later a Libyan diplomat was convicted of the killings.

Ronald Reagan, the then-US president, responded by ordering an air strike on Tripoli and Benghazi. One of the targets was Gaddafi’s residential compound. The Colonel escaped but his adopted 15-month-old daughter was killed.

Lockerbie bombing

Many conspiracy theories have been expounded about who was really responsible for the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.

Some contend it was the work of a Palestinian faction, others point to Iran, saying it no coincidence that the Lockerbie explosion came five months after an Iran Air flight was shot down by the US warship Vincennes in the Gulf, killing 290.

The facts are, however, that in 1999 Libya handed over two intelligence agents who were tried in a special Scottish court, and in 2003 admitted a measure of responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people.

Whether Libya made a “false confession” in order to get out from under crippling sanctions, as some contend, may or may not be known some day. UN sanctions were lifted in 2003, although some unilateral US sanctions remained in place.

George Bush, the former US president, believed his invasion of Iraq served as a warning to Libya, forcing it to bring its behaviour back to within international norms.

In December 2003, Gaddafi announced Libya was scrapping its programme to build weapons of mass destruction.

A subsequent UN inspection team found no evidence Libya was working on nuclear arms. Back-channel negotiations between the US, UK and Libya had reportedly been underway since 2002.

In 2004, The US and Libya resumed diplomatic relations, and the US dropped sanctions. In 2006 the US removed Libya from its list of ‘state sponsors of terrorism’.

By 2008, Gaddafi had behaved himself so admirably in the eyes of the US that he was treated to a visit by Condoleezza Rice, the redoubtable US secretary of state .

The final touch came in July of this year when Gaddafi, swathed in multiple multicoloured patterned silk robes, shawls and an gold-embroidered red pillbox hat, shook hands with Barack Obama, the US president, at a multinational summit in Italy.

While Libya has reoriented its foreign policy and abandoned its overt support for radicals of all stripes, little has changed to make life freer and more democratic for the Libyan people.

The Gaddafi dynasty

The US has objected to Gaddafi, left, giving al-Megrahi, right, a hero’s welcome [AFP]

Gaddafi rules with the help of an insidious and pervasive mukhabarat, or secret police, apparatus.

Far from beginning to transition his country toward democratic institutions, the flamboyant Colonel has apparently taken his cue from Syria and North Korea in preparing for a dynastic succession that would put his son Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi in charge.

The rapturous ceremony afforded to the cancer-stricken Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi on his return to Tripoli after release from Scotland on “compassionate” grounds has somewhat spoilt the newly chummy relationship.

Video of the Libyan dictator hugging the convicted Lockerbie bomber did not go down well with the public, or with the US Congress. Obama called the scene “highly  objectionable”.

It does seem hypocritical of Obama and Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, to appear more upset about al-Megrahi’s welcome-home party than they are over the baffling decision by Scotland’s not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Scottish National Party government to set him free in the first place.

And new evidence has emerged, in the form of hitherto secret memorandums, that strongly suggests the UK government leaned on Edinburgh to release Megrahi in order to (surprise!) grease a lucrative oil deal with Tripoli.

The Englewood uproar can be seen as a metaphor for how the West now treats Gaddafi. Having lots of Libyan oil on the market certainly is nice, and Western oil companies love having another country to exploit.

To sanitise a pungent saying favoured by President Lyndon Johnson, it’s better to have Gaddafi inside the tent spitting out, than outside the tent spitting in.

But like the citizens of Englewood, the US certainly doesn’t want Gaddafi setting up his tent in its backyard.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source : Al Jazeera

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