CAIRO, Egypt — After years trying to build a reputation as an African leader, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi appeared at a Europe-North Africa summit this month for what should have been a triumphant moment. But Gadhafi didn’t even bother to address the meeting.
When asked why he failed to speak, Gadhafi quoted an Arab proverb: “Words are silver, but silence is gold.”
The meeting came as Gadhafi was bringing Libya back into the international community — and taming his revolutionary image — but his performance proved again what has been clear for the 34 years of Gadhafi’s rule: It’s hard to predict the actions of the flamboyant Libyan leader.
On Friday, he surprised the world again when Libya declared it would rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.
“Libya is to play its international role in building a new world free of weapons of mass destruction and all kinds of terrorism, with the aim of preserving international peace and security,” Gadhafi said, according to Libya’s official JANA news service.
Libya also would help “face the ecological challenges so that the color green will prevail all over the globe,” added Gadhafi, who has recorded his political philosophy — a mix of socialism, populism and Arab nationalism — in a volume called “The Green Book.”
Challenging the international order
Gadhafi’s statements conflict with an international image as a sponsor of terrorism for the past three decades. Libya is blamed for a series of terrorist attacks, the deadliest being the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.
Always, Gadhafi challenged international order. In 1973, his country invaded neighboring Chad. In 1979, a mob in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, ransacked the U.S. Embassy to support Iran’s Islamic revolution. In 1986, Libya was blamed for a bombing at a Berlin disco that killed, among others, an American soldier.
The disco bombing prompted U.S. airstrikes on Libya that killed about 40 people, among them Gadhafi’s adopted daughter. The two incidents underscored the bitter enmity between Gadhafi and Washington.
But the Libyan leader has gradually backed away from his revolutionary image. In 1999, he allowed two Libyans to stand trial for the Lockerbie bombing — one was convicted, the other acquitted. In August, Libya accepted responsibility for the attack, opening the way for the U.N. Security Council to lift sanctions on the country.
Gadhafi’s change of heart was sold to the Libyan people as a decision to end the country’s isolation and cure its sick economy, but most saw it as Gadhafi’s way to avoid the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
Like Saddam, Gadhafi sought to be a pan-Arab leader on the model of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. But while other Arab leaders gladly accepted largesse from Libyan oil, they never took Gadhafi as seriously as he wanted.
After taking over Libya in a 1969 military coup as a 27-year-old army officer, Gadhafi gained a reputation as an eccentric, wearing flowing robes, organizing camel caravans to make political points and holding meetings in a desert tent.
He turned Libya into what he called a “jamahiriya” — Arabic for a republic of the masses — that was in theory run by people’s committees. But all the while, Gadhafi was really in charge, squelching dissent and reportedly surviving several assassination attempts.
When his bid for Arab leadership failed, he turned to Africa for his stage, again using oil money as a tool but again falling short of the recognition he wanted. He twice failed to be elected president of the Organization of African Unity.
Over the years, while many in the world saw him as either villain or a clown, he had a following among ordinary Arabs for his sharp criticism of the United States and other Arab leaders.
While he has moderated his image as a revolutionary, he still is known for the rash statement. Earlier this year, he called Saddam “insane” and, at a summit of Islamic nations, got into a shouting match with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah after he criticized Gulf nations for hosting U.S. military forces.
At the North African-Europe summit in early December, Gadhafi not only remained silent but refused to applaud a speech by French President Jacques Chirac, in reaction to a dispute over the amount of compensation due for a 1989 French airliner bombing blamed on Libya in which 170 people died.
An exasperated Chirac told reporters: “Relations with Libya are always very complicated.”
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