Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's strongman ruler, is commonly portrayed as an egomaniacal buffoon - an autocrat with an affinity for incomprehensible speeches and a flair for the melodramatic.
But as seen through a trove of confidential US diplomatic cables disclosed by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, the Libyan leader has another side: a master schemer who has dominated the country and its fractious tribes for four decades by successfully manipulating everyone around him.
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Since reopening an embassy in Tripoli two years ago, US diplomats have gradually come to express an understated admiration for Gaddafi's political skills. Even as they describe him as "mercurial" and "notoriously erratic," embassy officials document example after example of how the 68-year-old strongman has maintained his authority by skillfully marginalizing allies and rivals alike, including his power-hungry children.
Gaddafi "remains intimately involved in the regime's most sensitive and
critical portfolios," Ambassador Gene Cretz wrote in a Jan. 28, 2009,
cable to the US State Department in Washington. He said the Libyan
ruler's "mastery of tactical maneuvering has kept him in power for
nearly 40 years."
Those skills have been on display in recent days as Gaddafi has tried to
stave off a popular revolt by any means possible, including an all-out
military assault on protesters and the deployment of foreign
mercenaries. In a rambling televised address Tuesday from the heart of
Tripoli, he ranted against his enemies and vowed to fight "to my last
drop of blood."
Since taking power in 1969, Gaddafi has successfully kept the rest of
Libya's political establishment under his thumb. He abolished military
ranks higher than the one he gave himself - colonel - and placed
relatives and loyal members of his tribe in key military and government
"The reality is that no potential successor currently enjoys sufficient
credibility in his own right to maintain that delicate equilibrium,"
Cretz wrote. Gaddafi, he added, "is the architect of his own gilded cage
and cannot yet relinquish day-to-day decision-making, even if he wants
While Gaddafi likes to portray himself to his people as "an oracle above
the fray" in Libya's opaque governing structures, in reality he
personally vets all government contracts above $200 million, handpicks
officials throughout the bureaucracy and is generally well-versed in the
minutiae of domestic and foreign policy, the cables assert.
Gaddafi's multifaceted personality was on full display during an Aug.
14, 2009, meeting in Tripoli with a US congressional delegation. The
lawmakers, led by US Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., were summoned to
Gaddafi's opulent tent at 11 p.m. The Libyan "appeared as if he had been
roused from a deep slumber" and showed up with "rumpled hair and puffy
eyes," according to a diplomatic cable summarizing the encounter.
Wearing wrinkled pants and "a short-sleeved shirt patterned with the
continent of Africa," Gaddafi's mercurial side seemed be in control.
But, the cable reported, Gaddafi "was lucid and engaged throughout the
meeting," exhibiting a command of the issues at hand and a diplomatic
manner. When his son, Muatassim, who serves as his national security
adviser, tried to interrupt the US lawmakers, Gaddafi "shushed" him and
bade the visitors continue.
To be sure, the cables are packed with colorful references Gaddafi's
eccentricities. A September 2009 embassy missive to US Secretary of
State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted that Gaddafi was no longer constantly
accompanied by his "legendary" band of female bodyguards. Instead, he
had become more heavily dependent on his Ukrainian nurse, a "voluptuous
blonde" named Galyna, who traveled with him everywhere.
The cable also referred to Gaddafi's phobia about flying over open
waters and his fear of staying on the upper floors of hotels when
Gaddafi's health and personal appearance were common subjects of embassy
analysis. A June 16, 2009, cable discussed speculation Gaddafi had
throat cancer and diabetes but dismissed the reports as "unreliable." It
did conclude that he was a "hypochondriac" who ordered that all his
physical exams be videotaped so he could review them with a variety of
The same cable said some of Gaddafi's health problems could be
attributed to his "extremely vain" personality. While some sources in
Tripoli had whispered to embassy officials that Gaddafi's loss of
control of his facial muscles was evidence he had suffered a stroke,
others rejected that analysis, saying it was merely the result of
excessive Botox treatments.
In addition, Gaddafi's scraggly hairline was blamed on a botched hair
implant sometime in 2008 or 2009. The cable explained that he "suffered a
rare auto-immune reaction to the procedure and the plugs had to be
Of Gaddafi's eight children, several hold positions of influence. The
embassy cables, however, concentrate their attention on two sons:
Muatassim, the national security adviser, and Saif al-Islam, a
British-educated engineer, who have been considered the most likely
candidates to succeed their father as ruler.
Muatassim is derided in the cables as a shallow thinker who is not
"intellectually curious" but has the support of many old-guard figures
in Libya's security establishment. Saif al-Islam is presented as an
urbane sophisticate who is much more comfortable meeting with Western
businessmen and diplomats. Both sons, however, along with everyone else
in Libya, are often left guessing at their father's true intentions,
according to a November 2009 cable authored by Cretz.
"Qadhafi has placed his sons," he wrote, "on a succession high wire act,
perpetually thrown off balance, in what might be a calculated effort by
the aging leader to prevent any one of them from authoritatively
gaining the prize."Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.
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