Middle East

Interview: Libyan Leader Muammar al-Qaddafi

Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi
Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi addresses journalists after a Feb. 3, 2003, conference on African unity in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Photo: Simon Maina/AFP).

The young revolutionary Muammar al-Qaddafi has become a wise elder statesman. He has renounced terrorism—which, in his interviews with the American press, he consistently denies having ever countenanced: “It was liberation movements that I supported,” he says. Al-Qaddafi stresses, too, that he became aware of the danger from Islamic fundamentalism long before Washington did. As early as 1986, he closed down about 50 Islamic institutions in Libya, accusing them of being fronts for extremist subversion. And he was one of the first Arab leaders to publicly denounce the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. But in Washington, George W. Bush’s most hard-line advisers are reluctant to forget al-Qaddafi’s past. In their eyes, Libya remains a “rogue state.” So al-Qaddafi is cautious. Wearing a tunic reminiscent of a Roman emperor’s, his expression lofty, he remains an attractive figure. But today, the former warlord speaks diplomatically.
—Charles Lambroschini

Le Figaro: The Americans have given Saddam Hussein an ultimatum. If the Iraqi president doesn’t disarm completely and immediately, they will attack. Is there still time to avert a war?
Muammar al-Qaddafi: How can you prevent a war? There’s no reasonable justification for George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq. None of America’s explanations hold water, whether you look at it politically, militarily, or especially legally. It all seems completely irrational to me. We’re living in surreal times. And the question remains unanswered: What is this supreme power that gives the United States the right to make war?

To spare his people the death and destruction of another war, the third in 20 years, shouldn’t Saddam Hussein just comply with the various U.N. resolutions without further ado? And thus voluntarily give up what remains of his weapons of mass destruction?
Saddam Hussein has done everything he was asked to do. He has nothing more to give up. What do the Americans want? For Saddam Hussein to strip naked in front of them? In any case, he’s already taken off all his clothing because he even allowed the U.N. inspectors to root around in his presidential residences in Baghdad and across the country.

So do you have any advice that might help hold off an American attack?
George W. Bush won’t listen to anyone. But I’m persuaded that the United States is headed for disaster. Initially, the Americans will enjoy victory after victory. This will not last. President Bush should remember what happened to Hitler. The Führer was so proud of his initial triumphs! In 1939, he seized control of Europe without running into any meaningful resistance. When he invaded Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, each time it was a cakewalk. France, the great victor of the First World War, fell like a ripe fruit, and the Germans came this close to taking Moscow. And yet by 1945, Hitler had become the loser. We Arabs have a saying: “He who laughs at the beginning will cry at the end.” After their initial victory the Americans run the risk of a disaster. My advice to President Bush, then, is quite simple: Even for the United States, it would be wise to learn not to go too far.

Your comparison with Hitler is a dicey one. George W. Bush is no tyrant. And the Nazis were beaten by a broad front of Allies, while there’s nobody to oppose the United States, the world’s only superpower.
I am comparing historical circumstances, not individuals. But I observe that in the early days of Hitler’s rise there was also no serious opposition to him. At first, even Stalin didn’t resist Hitler: When Germany began its Western offensive, the Soviet Union supplied it with provisions and raw materials, weapons, and wheat. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, history appeared to repeat itself: Russia and China, former Communist rivals, became allies of America. But the pendulum is already swinging the other way. In the Security Council, the Russians and the Chinese have come over to the French side.

You’re saying the Americans will have no problem beating Iraq. Would you then say that their problems will start after the war?
Victory will be easy. The Americans have too many missiles, aircraft, and tanks for the Iraqis to bother them much. But this victory will be only temporary, because it will arouse reactions. And not just in Iraq or the Middle East. The results will be felt in Europe and around the globe. Terrorism risks spreading like an epidemic. The powder keg will explode.

You claim that Saddam Hussein has been stripped of his weapons of mass destruction. But don’t you think he has the means to send terrorists throughout the world, to blow up suitcases full of chemical or biological agents?
The day America goes off to war, we’ll have to expect the worst. Anything can happen then.

President Bush isn’t the only one who wants war. Since an attack on Iraq will create a new flood of militants for Al-Qaeda, isn’t Osama bin Laden also happily anticipating the war?
Of course! Everything that’s going on now serves the interest of Osama bin Laden. He sets himself up as a savior against a dominating, hegemonic America. In many Arab countries, Bin Laden is seen as a resistance hero.

But isn’t this killer’s prestige in the eyes of the masses in the Middle East largely a result of Arab governments’ failures? Wasn’t the most recent summit meeting of the Arab League in Sharm al-Sheikh a clear demonstration of the inability of the league’s 22 members to show a united front against a very real threat?
Today I am more interested in African unity than in Arab unity. Especially when you consider that two-thirds of the Arab world is actually in Africa. The day of national and religious coalitions is over. Now geographic and demographic factors should be emphasized first.

Isn’t the White House drawing conclusions from your public quarrel with Saudi Arabia that, frankly, aren’t very flattering? In other words, the inability of the Arab world to become a counterweight some day.
Saudi Arabia asserts that the American soldiers on its territory and in the Gulf are mere mercenaries. The day their usefulness is at an end, they will leave. This is an illusion. The Americans are very strong, very powerful. They won’t pull up stakes all that easily. But the negative attitude of their Saudi friends also proves that the United States doesn’t have much of a future in the Middle East.

If, as you say, Saddam Hussein has been completely disarmed, what is the strategic aim of the United States? Does George W. Bush want to redraw the map of the Middle East? After invading Iraq, do you think he’ll go after Iran, one of the “axis of evil” countries along with Iraq and North Korea? Or will he try to change the Saudi regime, an ally that the United States suspects of playing both ends against the middle? And would an attack on Libya be out of the question?
When Bush has finished with Iraq, we’ll quickly have a clear idea of where he’s going. It won’t take long to find out if Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Libya will be targets as well. At that point, U.S. policy will be unambiguous. It will be a neo-colonialist policy. If then we look back, we’ll realize that Iraq represented only one problem among many for U.S. policymakers. Today, George W. Bush is trying to convince the U.N. Security Council that a long list of reasons justify the use of force against Baghdad. But if, after having occupied Iraq, he goes after Iran, all the supposedly legitimate motives that Washington has been brandishing will fall of their own weight. No one will believe George W. Bush any longer. People will say to him: “Yesterday, you just talked about Iraq. But today, you’re after Iran. Tomorrow will you try to impose your will on the whole world, one country at a time?” At that moment, things will be clear and the rest of us will be able to face them openly. This neo-colonialism will inevitably trigger a reaction. And that will be the start of a further cycle of conflict.

Because of terrorism, Libya was put on the Americans’ list of “rogue states.” But a compromise on the damages Libya has agreed to pay to victims of the Lockerbie attack helped lay the groundwork for a possible normalization of relations with Washington. Are you now concerned that the administration will reverse itself and that George W. Bush will follow the example of Ronald Reagan, who bombed Tripoli in 1986?
Bush isn’t logical. You can’t tell what he’s going to do. So you have to be ready for anything. Today, nobody can say: “I will or won’t be a target.”

Once they’ve won in Iraq, the Americans will undoubtedly turn to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to seek a settlement there. Do you think they’ll give a blank check to Ariel Sharon or rather try to find a fair solution for the Palestinians?
There’s no question of waiting for the end of the war with Iraq. Sharon’s check is already signed. He’s implementing his plan, step by step.

In Israel, the far right argues that since the Arab world still wants to throw the Jews into the sea, the Israelis have the right to expel the Palestinians to the East bank of the Jordan. Does this seem like a plausible solution to you?
As for me, my mind has long been made up. Getting rid of one side or expelling the other, both are equally impossible propositions. For no other reasons than geographic ones, neither of the two peoples is able to set up a separate, viable state. After all, it’s only 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the West Bank to the sea. A mortar shell fired from anywhere in the Palestinian countryside can hit Tel Aviv. It’s out of the question that the biggest city in a country can find itself under this kind of threat on a permanent basis. The only smart solution would be to create a single state that would allow Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace. I’ve even come up with a name for it—Isratine. We have a model for a state like that in the Middle East: Lebanon. This is a country that has managed to bring together different religions and peoples in a single entity.

Except that today Lebanon is under Syrian control.

How do you see the French government’s resistance to U.S. policy on Iraq? Through French action in the U.N. Security Council, does Jacques Chirac have a real chance to dissuade the Americans from invading?
Anything that helps reestablish a balance in the face of the American superpower is very useful. It’s the best chance of keeping the peace. Currently, the imbalance is so great that it would be unrealistic to hope for a rapid change in the balance of power. But if Europe, led by the French-German duo, persists in its efforts, it may manage one day to bring about a less unjust world. France’s work in the Security Council is a beginning, the start of an evolutionary process. Isn’t it true that the attitude of Paris and Berlin has encouraged the Russians and the Chinese to side with the French and Germans? This is truly a sign that, in parallel with America, a multipolar world is striving to make itself known.

Compared with the United States, which is so large and powerful, don’t France and Germany cut a pretty feeble figure?
Not at all. The French-German duo is the backbone of Europe. Jacques Chirac must stay the course, and if he does, all the European countries will fall in line. It’s the European example that will encourage the Muslim world to join together, that will incite Africa to unite. The French president’s position has aroused immense enthusiasm in Arab public opinion. And so Europe must not give in to pessimism. Look how quickly things have changed. After the suicide bombings of Sept. 11, 2001, an anti-terror coalition sprang up in a totally spontaneous way. The whole world took the side of the United States. But what remains of this mass movement of sympathy? Behind France and Germany, another vast coalition has formed—against the United States this time!

Just the same, President Bush has managed to split the Europeans. Central Europe, as well as Spain and Italy, have come over to the American side of the dispute.
Internationally, the United States has already lost the day. Yesterday, everyone was with America. Today, everyone is against it. The alliance that George W. Bush thought he had created with England, Italy, and Spain is starting to crumble under the pressure of public opinion. You will see that NATO, which owed its authority to the Cold War, will eventually disappear, to be replaced by a Euroforce. European countries will be less and less willing to take military risks alongside the Americans if Washington demands that its allies do only one thing: serve the interest of the United States.