Well, Muammar Qaddafi’s back in the news. I know you were wondering what was up with him. After all, according to his Wikipedia bio the dashing desert prince is now the world’s longest-serving head of government (thanks, Fidel!).
The U.S. electorate may have just taken a turn to the left, with even George W. Bush sanctioning a massively larger role for government through the Wall Street bailout. But I was tipped today by an astute observer (she’s @krbstr on Twitter) that Qaddafi has announced a breathtakingly libertarian plan “to distribute the proceeds of oil wealth directly to the people and abolish government ministries,” according to a Financial Times story (“Qaddafi Debate Signals Change“). More below on the controversial proposal, but first a personal note.
I’ve had an interest in the contrarian Colonel since the 1970s when I was a teenager and living in Malta, smack-dab in the middle of the Mediterranean and just north of Libya. There was a tug of war over the island’s attention during that era of intense U.S., Soviet, and Chinese triangular geopolitical rivalry where superpowers looked for friends and proxies, and the enemy-of-my-enemy was an ally. Malta was small but strategically located and was having fun being wooed during the Cold War’s turf battles.
“A Split Personality”
And then came a suitor out of nowhere. Col. Muammar Qaddafi, famed “Libyan strongman,” showed some interest in Malta, as he similarly developed passionately intense crushes on other neighbors. As an undergraduate later, I wrote a term paper recounting the many failed “state mergers” which Qaddafi attempted, with Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Algeria, and Syria among others – all diplomatic failures, but all were dramatic hits, with Qaddafi showing up usually unannounced in a foreign land and offering two things: complete union, and bottomless oil wealth.
Perplexed recipients of these visits went along for a while before showing him the door. According to a richly detailed personality profile of Qaddafi in People Magazine (where else), he was once described by president of the Sudan Gaafar Nimeiri as “a split personality—both evil.”
The traveling cult of personality showed up in Malta one day, and I made sure to attend the open-air rally where his speech (in Arabic) made no impression but his spectacle went over big. He was accompanied as always by a phalanx of female bodyguards. Am I allowed to say they were hot, keeping in mind I was a teenage boy? If you’ve never read about Qaddafi’s protective detail, they’re an entourage fit for a James Bond evil genius (read a New York Times story about Qaddafi’s “elite corps”). What I saw that day were a half-dozen “healthy” young women dressed in form-fitting pseudo-military uniforms and high leather boots, carrying submachine guns.
That’s a great way to make an entrance, I assure you.
He still does that; recent examples of the effect are a “Brussels EU Surprise” in 2004, or a “Nigerian airport drama” in 2006. In a sassy Nerve.com story (“Killer Bodies: the story behind Qaddafi’s sexy female bodyguards“), the Western world’s challenge to Qaddafi was made plain:
He’ll have to do something not only about his country’s ongoing human rights abuses (see Amnesty International), but also his trademark posse of female bodyguards. Everywhere he goes, he’s surrounded by a badass bunch of Lara Croft clones, usually in matching colored camouflage (of dubious use in the desert). They’ve been described as “wearing their Kalashnikovs like Gucci fashion accessories.” (Yes, news articles always describe what they’re wearing.)
When I saw him in Malta, Qaddafi had only recently made his name on the world stage by seizing power in a 1969 coup, and quickly kicking out the Americans and their oilmen and their Air Force, snatching the mighty Wheelus Air Force Base and trying to claim Nasser’s mantle of “leader of the pan-Arab world.” During the four years I was in Malta, Libya began giving first small and then impressively large amounts of its oil revenue bounty to the Maltese, in essence as foreign aid, with a big string attached – be friendly to Libya. So when the Lion of the Desert himself visited the island, it was a hoot, I was hooked, and I’ve enjoyed the Q show ever since.
Only a month ago he welcomed Condoleezza Rice on the first visit to Libya by an American secretary of state since John Foster Dulles 55 years ago – after earlier giving an interview to Al-Jazeerah saying about her, “I support my darling black African woman. I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders. … Leezza, Leezza, Leezza. … I love her very much.”
His latest adventure, the threatened wholesale shutdown of the apparatus of Libyan government, began earlier this year. Again from the Financial Times story yesterday:
Arguing that the government structure had bred corruption and failed the people, Colonel Gaddafi decreed in March a scheme for distributing money and dismantling most ministries, leaving only interior, defence and foreign affairs.
He promised that every family would be handed its share of the oil wealth and it would be free to spend it the way it liked, buying services such as health, education and housing from private sector companies.
While some Libyans saw the leader’s approach as a sign of a belated conversion to capitalism, others, including officials and businessmen, were alarmed, fearing that the plan would be a recipe for economic chaos.
The FT story reports that Libya’s technocrats in government are fighting back against the plan, and that Qaddafi may be forced to back down. Still, just as with the edgy diplomacy and bodyguards, you have to admire his unending passion for – well, let’s just label it all “innovation on the world stage” and leave it at that.
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