Inside Muammar’s madhouse

Visiting Gaddafi’s Libya was always like dropping into ‘Abdul in Wonderland.'

Young Gaddafi and Chesnoff 311 (photo credit: USNWR)
Young Gaddafi and Chesnoff 311
(photo credit: USNWR)
Marketplaces were jammed with shops but empty of goods. Enormous signboards bore the nonsensical slogans of the even more illogical Green Book – the bible of Muammar Gaddafi’s jamahiriya – state of the masses.
Walls were plastered with enormous posters of “The Leader” wearing everything from gold-embroidered imperial military uniforms to Arab ghalabiyas to designer ski suits.
It was all more than slightly mad. Once when I drove from the Tunisian border to the Libyan capital of Tripoli, I noticed that all the direction signs on Libya’s main coastal highway had been blacked out: “It’s to confuse the enemy,” my Libyan escort explained.
Still, nothing was weirder than going to see the Leader himself.
MY FIRST visit to Gaddafi was in October 1986, just a few months after US warplanes had bombed Tripoli in punishment for a Libyan terrorist bombing of US troops in Germany. It was to be Gaddafi’s first interview with an American newsman since the reprisal, and had been arranged by the Libyan ambassador in Paris – my then-base for US News & World Report.
Yet when I flew into Tripoli, I was immediately confined to my hotel and not allowed out. “The Leader may summon us at any moment,” my Libyan minder explained.
Over the next eight days, there was little to do but take part in what fellow journalist Ruth Marshall once jokingly called “the bar scene from Star Wars” – a nightly gathering in the posh lobby of the Al Kabir Hotel which included assorted businessmen, foreign advisers and terrorists of all stripes: IRA, Palestinian, Basque.
“Everyone’s waiting to see Gaddafi,” explained a Damascus-based Kurdish rebel leader, who like the rest of his fellow militants patiently awaited a chance to see Libya’s chief cash-cow.
Finally, on the ninth night, I was given five minutes’ notice, then driven at high speed to the presidential palace – or what was left of it; the US Air Force had made Gaddafi’s home a special target during its April raid. Now Gaddafi insisted we do our interview amid the shattered glass and other rubble that littered the bombed-out palace: “I want you to see what the US president tried to do to me, how [Ronald] Reagan tried to kill me.”
Gaddafi was still young then, trim and ruggedly handsome, without the puffiness that marks him of late. He was engaging – if illogical. Secretary of state George Schultz, he insisted, was “really an Israeli.”
Reagan “should be tried as a killer and a murderer and a madman.”
Gaddafi’s ultimate goal, he told me, was to unite all the Arab nations. “Arab unity is a unification of Arab countries into states like the United States. This is the role I am playing – a mixture of the roles of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.”
He then took me to see what was left of the presidential bedroom where, he said, “Reagan thought I was sleeping” (he wasn’t). Velvet paintings of lions adorned the wall, and his round maroon bed featured a headboard with an enormous photo montage of the surf at Big Sur.
Just before I left, he suddenly told me Fidel Castro had become a communist “under American pressure...I am not a communist, but I might be obliged – just to nag America – to become a communist out of spite.”
We didn’t meet again until 1994. This time, he received me at his heavily guarded Beduin tent encampment on the western outskirts of Tripoli. The Leader was practicing soccer with some of his guards (male ones) when I arrived.
The game over, Gaddafi, still looking trim and fit, strode into his colorful tent. While a charcoal bonfire crackled outside, he told me how grateful he was for my previous interview.
“Unlike a lot of journalists,” he said. “You quoted my words just as I said them.”
He said he was optimistic about relations with Bill Clinton. Then the Leader continued with his usual rants – finally telling me that his rule over Libya had “laid down the threshold of the era of the masses. We have created a ‘great man-made river’... a new wonder to be added to the wonders of the world. [But the real] revolution starts now. We will lead the world toward a new era, eliminating armies and bringing an end to the evils of traditional governments, parties and classes. In their place we will establish a jamahiriya, a state of the masses. Then and only then will a lasting peace be realized.”
Tragically for Libya, it’s nowhere near.
The writer is a prize-winning veteran of more than 40 years of global news work. He is former Jerusalem correspondent for Newsweek and executive editor of Newsweek International, senior correspondent of US News & World Report from 1985 to 2003 and is now a columnist for The New York Daily News and The Huffington Post, where this article was first published.