What Libya's Kaddafi Can Teach World Leaders

Hell Week approaches, at least for New Yorkers. The United Nations General Assembly has begun, and city traffic already is seizing up like a drain clogged with minor dignitaries. By next week, when the orgy of posturing known as the General Debate begins, the really big names will be in town: Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, Hu Jintao, Hugo Chávez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Muammar Kaddafi, to cite a few. For an interminable three or four days, these statesmen, tyrants, and terrorists will grip and grin and gridlock Manhattan.

But which is which? There are people in this world who would put any one of those names into any one of those categories. The one who fits all three without question, however, is Mr. Kaddafi.

The Libyan is so bizarrely eccentric that one of my editors likes to call him the Michael Jackson of global politics. There's always some story connected to him about camels or tents, his nubile bodyguards, and his comic-opera costumes. In 1988 he even wore a single white glove to an Arab summit in Algiers.

Yet Kaddafi has now been in power for more than 40 years, and it's not only tyranny and terror, but a particular kind of statecraft that has kept him there. For better or worse, he is a sort of paradigm, and not least to other petro-players such as Iran and perennial bad guys like the North Koreans. "Kaddafi has managed to master the art of creating countless competing interest groups and confusing people and suckering them in," says a Western diplomat who served in Tripoli after Kaddafi came in from the cold, and who asked not to be named because he still has dealings with the Libyans.

In this diplomat's view, the prisoner-release drama that played out in recent weeks was utterly predictable. For years, Libya kept calling for the freedom of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, making sure that his name came up in sensitive commercial negotiations, and pressing his case until, for humanitarian reasons, the Scottish government let the cancer-afflicted convict go home to die. But when Megrahi returned to Tripoli, it was to Kaddafi's embrace and a hero's welcome that humiliated British officialdom, especially the beleaguered Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Over the decades, Kaddafi (or Qadhafi or Gaddafi: the name is spelled only one way in Arabic script, but transliterated dozens of different ways in the Roman alphabet) has learned that he doesn't really need to change; even his worst enemies will reinvent him depending ontheir needs—and their greed. And this is a lesson that any major energy producer—not least Venezuela's Chávez and Iran's Ahmadinejad—can take to heart. Who has been more vilified than Kaddafi, and who has made a bigger comeback?

Roughly speaking, the Libyan's global acceptability rises and falls following on the price of oil: when it's high, as it was in the 1970s and, again, in the past few years, Europe and the United States have found ways to overlook his hideous record on human rights and his vengeful support of terrorists, deciding that the best way to affect his behavior is to do business with him. When oil prices have been low, as in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Kaddafi has been portrayed as a madman and his country seen as fit only to bomb and to boycott.

But of course there's a little more to this game than just the price of petroleum. There's also the matter of nukes and of Pan Am 103. And it's worth going over the history just a bit to get a sense of the cause, effect, and casuistry that have dominated policy.

During the Reagan administration, Kaddafi's atomic ambitions were mostly fictional, and his targets mainly his exiled opponents and the Israelis. But in The Fifth Horseman, an apocalyptic bestseller published in 1980, the authors imagined that Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi (as they spelled the name) had managed to build a three-megaton bomb and hide it in New York to hold the city hostage. The fearsome image stuck. In July 1981, NEWSWEEK ran a wonderfully lurid cover with the Libyan leader's face looming large as terrorists rushed toward the reader, Kalashnikovs blazing. The cover line was "Kaddafi: The Most Dangerous Man in the World?"

Actually, no. Libya was the country largely without defenses. But for the next eight years, the Reagan administration baited Kaddafi, punishing his bluster and his association with terrorists (which at the time was a label that included Nelson Mandela) by shooting down his planes and sinking his ships. Finally the Libyan upped the ante in April 1986 when his agents planted a bomb in a nightclub in Berlin, killing two American servicemen and a Turkish woman. Washington, which was more than ready for the showdown, launched air raids on the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, with several of the attack planes flying out of bases in Britain.

It was only then that Kaddafi launched a concerted covert offensive against the United States and the United Kingdom. He sent massive arms shipments to the Irish Republican Army; his agents staged more attacks targeting American and British military personnel around the world. They even contracted a hapless Japanese terrorist who was caught by chance on the New Jersey Turnpike shortly before he was to detonate explosives in midtown Manhattan. And, finally, Kaddafi's minions planted a bomb on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people in the air and on the ground in December 1988.

(At the time, most analysts thought the Iranians were actually behind that atrocity, to take vengeance against the United States for shooting down an Iranian airliner five months earlier. But the detonator found by forensic investigators traced back to the Libyan intelligence services.)

In 1992 the United Nations slapped draconian sanctions on Tripoli, and Kaddafi's country faced increasingly squalid isolation for more than a decade as oil prices dropped from about $20 a barrel down to about $12 in 1998 (or, adjusted for inflation, from $32 down to $16).

By then, Kaddafi was fairly desperate to make a deal, but the Americans and Europeans weren't all that interested. After long negotiations, a complicated arrangement was struck that put a couple of flunkies from the Libyan intelligence service on trial for the Lockerbie bombing in front of a Scottish court sitting in a specially prepared venue in the Netherlands. Megrahi was the only one convicted, as if he had acted without orders. The Libyans agreed to pay millions of dollars to the families of those murdered, without conceding responsibility, and they kept promoting the O. J. Simpson-like argument that the real terrorists had yet to be found.

At about the same time, Kaddafi started trying to buy black-market nuclear-weapons technology from the infamous network of the Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, which sounds scary. Might he still bring that three-megaton bomb to New York? But as U.N. inspectors discovered later, the amount of money Libya invested in the program was only about $50 million, and many of the crates of equipment Kaddafi acquired were never unpacked. His son, Saif al-Islam Qadhafi (as he spells his surname), told me in 2007 that the Libyan nuclear-weapons program was serious. The George W. Bush administration claimed that the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 had scared Kaddafi into surrendering his nuclear-related equipment and black-market contacts to Western intelligence agencies in 2004.

But Arab and Western diplomats who've served in Libya think it was all a sting coordinated with the British and perhaps American clandestine services so Kaddafi would have an intelligence bonanza to offer the West, and thus end the embargo for good. As one of those diplomats told me recently, "It appeared that the Libyans were, under the eyes of those parties, developing something that they knew they were going to turn into a chit in the future." And by 2004, with oil prices more than $40 a barrel and rising fast, there was every incentive to forgive Kaddafi his sins.

"It's an immoral game," Saif told me in 2007 after Libya went on to extort hundreds of millions of dollars out of France and the Qataris to free Bulgarian nurses imprisoned for years on trumped-up charges of spreading AIDS. "But they [the Europeans] set the rules of the game . . . and now they are paying the price." What Saif learned from his father's example, he said, is that "finally your enemies come to you and say, OK, now we are friends and we can do this together, and we can even help you if somebody is attacking you, and we'll defend your country and do business together."

So keep that in mind when you hear Kaddafi addressing the United Nations next week. (Libya, you see, now holds the rotating presidency of the General Assembly.) Doubtless the Leader will look strange and act strange. He is, yes, still crazy after all these years. But, then, so are we.