The Bedouin key to understanding Qaddafi

A Seattle reporter who twice interviewed the Libyan leader traces his baffling personality to a Bedouin sense of honor and a deep distrust of the urbanized West.

Crosscut archive image.

Qaddafi, thumbing through his 'Green Book'

A Seattle reporter who twice interviewed the Libyan leader traces his baffling personality to a Bedouin sense of honor and a deep distrust of the urbanized West.

I interviewed Moammer Qaddafi twice for NBC News in 1981, and found him a strange and frightening character. His willingness to inflict
violence is well known; what is less understood is his unsophisticated and primitive view of the world — which I believe stems from his roots among the Bedouin tribes of the Libyan desert.

I found him just as vain and cartoonish as he looks on CNN today, and seriously out of touch with Western culture and ideas.

We had an odd encounter. At their request, I submitted some possible questions to an aide, with the understanding that no questions or issues would be out of bounds. When Qaddafi entered his famous tent (which sits in a big military base) a couple of hours late, he had the questions in his hand. He said “Here’s what I think of your questions,” and tore the paper into four or five long strips.

When we began the interview, I asked first if he would fire on US jets if they invaded the air space he claimed in the Gulf of Sirte. He said, “Now that’s a good question!” I told him it was the first question on the list I had provided. He didn’t believe me, so he and an aide got down on their knees in front of a coffee table and reassembled the pieces of paper to see if I was lying. The question was there, just as I said. It was apparently a loss of face for him, as he seemed angry about the episode. Incidentally, Bedouins used trial by fire to test for lies.

The Bedouin, the desert peoples of Arabia, occupy a high place in Arab culture, symbolizing the idealized nomadic lifestyle and values. They descend from non-urban, pre-Islamic peoples, who value bravery and manliness and fierce loyalty to kin. Qaddafi says Bedouins abhor the frivolous and profane lives of urban Arabs. Milton Viorst interviewed him for Foreign Affairs in 1999, and concluded that he rules like a tribal chief.

Qaddafi has always been suspicious not just of foreigners, but also of potential Libyan adversaries. He employs bodyguards from his clan. There is an Arab saying, “Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, my cousins and me against strangers.”

But it’s also important to understand that he was not always despised by his people, who lived in backward poverty under King Idris until 1969. There was genuine gratitude for his use of oil revenues to build housing for tens of thousands who previously lived in slums. He brought them electricity, water, and schools. His "Green Book" says there is a basic human right to housing, food, and clothes (not speech or democracy).

Most key leaders in Arab countries were educated in America or Britain and are to a great extent Westernized. Whether kings or presidents, pro-Western or anti-Western, they are deeply influenced by their experiences in Europe or America. Think of King Hussein (Harrow and Sandhurst), Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister (Princeton), and Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president (studied ophthalmology in London).

Qaddafi, by contrast, is shaped largely by his roots in southern Libya’s desert Fessan province. His lone time in Europe was a four or six-month training session at a British military base, where he kept strictly to himself. He always abhorred the club of moderate Westernized Arab leaders that were the backbone of America’s Mideast Policy from the 1960s forward, a group that kept the oil flowing and didn’t rock the boat too much over Israel.

Qaddafi only became an urban dweller when he entered a military academy in Benghazi. Mohamed Heikal recalls that when he first visited Egypt to meet Sadat, he was served some of the famous Abu Khir shrimp. He recoiled in horror, saying, “you eat cockroaches?”

The Billy Carter-Libya affair is a telling example of Qaddafi ’s notion that it is families and tribes that do business in his country. President Carter’s brother took $220,000 in loans and guarantees from Libyan agents to make a deal for them with Charter Oil and get approval from the State Department for sale of aircraft to Libya. Jimmy Carter was desperately trying to negotiate a settlement of the hostage crisis, and seeking back-channel communication.

Zbigniew Brzezinski actually met with Billy about using his Libyan contacts to start a conversation with the Ayatollah or the students. President Carter himself later confirmed the tribe-to-tribe dynamic. He told a Congressional inquiry: “The Muslim community places great importance on family ties, and I believed that a request arranged with Billy’s participation would be regarded as coming more directly from the President and might supplement the efforts already being made through normal State Department channels.” The Justice Department finally made Billy register as a foreign agent.

Qaddafi’s several recent mentions of the Europeans and Americans as “Crusaders” is revealing. Honor and revenge are Bedouin themes, and Qaddafi feels many hurts from “Westerners.” Many Arabs feel the need to address historic humiliations, of which the Crusades were the first. They brood on history — occupied by the French, British, and Italians, and in the ultimate insult, forced to see the state of Israel established in their midst, an indignity they lay at the door of the United States.

Israel’s repeated military humiliation of Arab armies since 1947 is an open wound; American aid and arms shipments to Israel confirm their belief that our diplomacy is entirely one-sided.

Qaddafi expelled the Americans from the Wheelus air base immediately after he took power, and tried to have the US ambassador to Egypt assassinated. He abandoned that plot when Jimmy Carter sent him a personal note saying he knew about the plans, and would punish him if he persisted. Reagan’s attack in 1986 was a fresh humiliation.

This background helps us understand why Qaddafi continues to roll his tanks toward Benghazi, in defiance of the massive air power arrayed against him. Like a desert chief, he shuns negotiation or compromise. He rejects any kind of realpolitik; you are for him or against him, and if you are against him, you must be slain.

None of this is meant to diminish the role of Qaddafi’s mercurial personality, but among the Bedouin, loss of face, or experience of military shame, is immensely potent. The US has repeatedly humiliated Qaddafi and that equals a blood feud to a Bedouin, a direct challenge to manliness and honor.

Qaddafi's "Green Book" (I have an autographed copy) is a hodge-podge of daffy socialism and Islam, with no nod to modernity. He takes his "Third Universal Theory" very seriously, and sees himself as the superstar who can fulfill his description of the ideal leader awaited by the world.

  

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