Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Mad Dog

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Libya to meet with its mercurial leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi. Her visit illustrates how U.S-Libyan relations have evolved in the twenty years since President Ronald Reagan called Gaddafi "the mad dog of the Middle East."

Colonel Gaddafi became de facto leader of Libya in a 1969 coup. As part of his new "Islamic socialism," he took control of large companies and imposed Islamic morals, banning alcohol and gambling. Emulating Mao's Little Red Book, Gaddafi spelled out his socialist-Islamic philosophy in his Green Book. Published in three volumes in the late seventies, it was required reading for all Libyans.

In practice, Gaddafi ruthlessly and violently ruled his country. His government sent out hit squads to suppress opposition abroad. Nine Libyan dissidents were murdered during this period, five in Italy. In response to Gaddafi's growing terrorism, the U.S. Government invalidated all American passports for travel to Libya in December 1981.

Gaddafi, finding himself the center of international attention, sent out word he wanted to meet with the world's press. At that time, I had been assigned to temporary duty in the CBS News London bureau where I produced foreign stories for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Like a flash, I was dispatched with a correspondent and a crew to the scene.

It was a cold and snowy night when we boarded our chartered jet at London's Gatwick airport. The pilot informed us that we were not cleared to land at Tripoli International Airport. This news was a bit unsettling, to say the least. But our plane took off and flew to Nice to refuel. As we stepped off the plane in the mild Mediterranean night our crew checked to see if we had received clearance. When we reboarded the aircraft we were informed that clearance had not been given. After a brief discussion, we decided to continue on to Tripoli.

As we flew across the darkened Mediterranean Sea, under a crescent moon, I thought about whether we would encounter Libyan fighter jets. My anxiety increased when we saw the first glimmer of lights from the Libyan shoreline. Since it was three in the morning, I assumed their air defenses were on high alert. But, to my relief, as we approached the airport, our plane was cleared to land.

We were shuttled to a distant runway where we sat in our parked aircraft for nearly a half hour. Finally a couple of vehicles pulled up to our plane and we identified ourselves as members of the press. We were driven to the terminal where we turned over our passports and were offered pear juice in exchange. While I could have used a stiff gin and tonic, the juice was comforting and tasty. We spent three hours in the terminal, and, as the day's first light poured over Tripoli, we were driven to the Beach Hotel. The darkened lobby was quiet; the front desk was unmanned. It took another hour for someone to check us in and guide us to our rooms.

My room, which was in the basement of the hotel, had a single window looking out on the patio. I settled in and quickly fell asleep. When I awakened, I ventured outside onto the nearby beach wondering how the locals would react to an American. Indifference. A little later we were informed of an anti-American demonstration. Several dozen demonstrators waved Libyan flags, Arabic banners and spouted a lot of vitriol in what would become a daily event.

We spent several days waiting for an audience with Gaddafi. One night I listened in my room to my portable short wave radio as the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Superbowl. On another night we were invited to dinner at the home of a foreign diplomat where we enjoyed Libyan food and beer. The Islamic moral code did not apply to the diplomatic community.

We talked every day with an impatient CBS News foreign desk looking for a story. "Nothing going on here other than a small demo," we would reply. Finally, and on short notice, members of the foreign press were driven to meet with Gaddafi. As we arrived at a building called the People's Jamahiriya (a word meaning state of the masses), our camera equipment was taken away from us by security. The press was herded into a large room where we waited for more than an hour.

Suddenly a number of vehicles loudly announced their presence as they pulled up outside. The worlds press stirred with anticipation. A couple of Libyan officials walked into our room and we all stood at attention. A moment later, Colonel Gadaffi walked slowly into the room, scanned his eyes over the press gathering, and continued on out a door on the other side of the room. He didn't even pause or wave.

A few minutes later one of Gaddafi's aides came back into our room and announced, "There will be no press conference, you go home now!" With that security led us back to our buses, returned our equipment to us, and had us driven back to our hotels. No one knew what "you go home now" meant at first. But subsequently we were told that it meant, "leave the country."

The "all knowing" CBS News foreign desk, nonetheless, still believed that Gaddafi would talk to the press. We were ordered to stay put. But the foreign desk was now occupied with a huge international story, Marshall law had been declared in Poland. This development was page one news everywhere in the world. And I would come to find out that Gaddafi did not want to face the press now for fear he would be relegated to the back pages of the world's newspapers. There would be no Time cover for the "mad dog of the Middle East." It was as simple as that. Finally, even the foreign desk relented, and we returned to London on our chartered jet.

A quarter of a century later I found myself smiling when I read that Condoleezza Rice and her party had been kept waiting for more than a hour at their hotel by Gaddafi prior to their meeting. Gaddafi had previously described Rice as "my darling black African woman." When at last she met him he did not offer his hand, rather he put it on his chest, a typical Arab greeting for women. The only real news was that there had been a meeting.

Gaddafi is one of a kind. Thank God.

No comments: