'He is almost in from the cold." This is how British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described the latest position of the Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Straw described Gaddafi as "a statesman" and "a man we could do business with."
An hour earlier, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had telephoned the Colonel in Tripoli to relay similar sentiments. Unusual words of praise also came from President George W. Bush.
But why this sudden warmth for a man who was described as a terrorist mastermind only a week ago? What is it that caused this strangest of political epiphanies?
The answer coming from British and American officials is that, thanks to months of patient diplomacy, Gaddafi has been persuaded to abandon his quest for weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms, and will also terminate support for terrorist organizations. In exchange, Britain and the United States will persuade the United Nations to lift sanctions against Libya after the Lockerbie tragedy almost exactly 15 years ago. The United States will also end the separate set of sanctions imposed under the Iran Libya Sanctions Act, passed under the Clinton administration. Within months, if not weeks, Libya would be open for massive Western investment in its ailing oil industry, its decrepit infrastructure and its moribund agriculture.
Nevertheless, many questions remain, not the least being: Can anyone trust Gaddafi?
This is not the first time Gaddafi has promised to change course and "come in from the cold."
The first time came in 1982 when he met French president Francois Mitterrand in Cyprus and promised that Libya would stop funding the Irish Republican Army and cut links with terror organizations attacking U.S. military targets in West Germany. By 1984, however, the British had established that Libya had, in fact, doubled its support for the IRA. As for U.S. targets, Libyan-backed groups stepped up their attacks, killing and wounding a number of U.S. troops in West Germany.
The next time Gaddafi promised to mend his ways was in 1986 after U.S. president Ronald Reagan had ordered the bombing of Tripoli. At that time the go-between was Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak, who informed the Americans that Gaddafi had pledged his "Arab honour" that he would stop all anti-American terrorist activities. Well, two years later came the destruction of the Pan-Am jetliner, the single biggest anti-American terror attack before the Sept. 11 tragedies.
Will this will be third time lucky with Gaddafi?
It is too early to tell. Some British and Arab sources claim this time will be different for at least two reasons.
The first is that the Libyan leader has seen Saddam Hussein's dental examination on television. The liberation of Iraq has put the fear of God in many Middle Eastern despots.
Earlier this month, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad closed the offices of various terror organizations in Damascus and announced the end of the Baath Party's monopoly on power. That was followed by the Sudanese jackboots who agreed to sign an American-brokered program to end the civil war and move towards elections. Then we had the mullahs of Tehran putting their signature to a protocol that could hamper their quest for nuclear weapons. Thus it is perfectly possible that Gaddafi, too, got scared and decided to do what he needs to do to avoid a Saddam-like dental check.
The second reason why this time may be different is that Gaddafi's return from the cold has been negotiated over more than three years and with great care. The first phase was handled by Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and a personal friend of the Libyan dictator. In that, Mandela was assisted by Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington who has close political ties to the Bush family. The second phase of the negotiations was handled by the British, under Blair's personal supervision.
The argument, therefore, is that we should take Gaddafi's latest policy reversal as a strategic change and not a tactical move by a frightened man.
Nevertheless, a strong dose of skepticism is in order. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Gaddafi's career would be familiar with his capricious and sudden policy changes. Soon after he seized power in a military coup d'etat in 1969, Gaddafi flew to Cairo and almost forced the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul-Nasser to absorb Libya into Egypt as the first step towards Arab unification. Three years later, however, Gaddafi branded Egypt as "an enemy of the Arab nation" and called for the murder of its new leader, Anwar Sadat.
Between 1973 and 1993, Gaddafi tried to make a union with a variety of other Arab states, including Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and ended up supporting terrorist groups against all three.
In 1991 he flirted with Saddam Hussein, whose invasion of Kuwait looked like another recipe for achieving Gaddafi's dream of Arab unity.
By the year 2000, however, Gaddafi had quarrelled with almost all Arab leaders and was looking to black Africa for partners. In 2002 he announced Libya was no longer an Arab nation and should emphasize its "African identity." He played a key role, mostly by signing cheques, in the creation of something called the African Union, and, having bribed enough African leaders, managed to promote himself as the leader of the black continent. He also announced that any Libyan who marries a black African would get a cash gift of US$5,000.
The least that one can say is that Gaddafi is an unstable maverick who could change policy anytime and as his pleases. With an ego the size of Everest, Gaddafi believes himself to be the world's greatest philosopher. In recent years he has also taken to writing short stories, and has so far published two collections. He has also directed television documentaries, and designed what he calls "the modern Arab tent." In 1998 he also exhibited a handmade sports car that he said he had designed to drive Ferraris and Porsches out of the market.
To describe Gaddafi as a "statesman" is as accurate as calling Mae West a nun.
Surely, British and American politicians cannot be so naive as to believe that a man like Gaddafi, and a system like the one he has created, can ever pursue a rational policy.
In his speech in London last month, President Bush went to the heart of the matter when he declared that the problem with the Middle East is the absence of democracy. A totalitarian state such as the one Gaddafi has built can never become a true friend and partner of the Western democracies. The potentate who has ordered a halt to a policy of terror and weapons of mass destruction could easily order a resumption anytime he likes.
The ultimate test of any regime is the way it treats its own people. A regime's foreign policy is the natural extension of its domestic policies. As long as the Libyan people have absolutely no say in decision-making, anything that Gaddafi might say should be taken with a pinch of salt.
The United States and Britain should not allow the prospect of juicy contracts in Libya to divert attention from what President Bush has identified as the vital imperative of democratization. Real change in Libya will come only if political prisoners are released, the censorship of the media is stopped, and the ban on political parties lifted. Libya needs a constitution -- it is the only country in the world without one -- providing for free elections. Until that happens, Gaddafi will always be able to revert to his shenanigans and laugh at Bush and Blair as he laughed at Mitterrand and Mubarak in the past.© National Post 2003