It has been quite a ride, watching the pop-political entertainment machine try to slice the Arab Spring into easy partisan talking points. Glenn Beck has his democracy-is-bad-for-Muslims, Google-is-pushing-dominos-to-the-caliphate theory. Sarah Palin came forward with a muddled call for more transparency from the White House, followed by a more direct shame-on-Obama-for-not-quickly-condemning-Libya-violence Facebook post, which came right before Obama condemned the violence after a delay to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens in Libya. There have been regular cries from the right, at CPAC in particular, that Obama cared more about betraying its ally Hosni Mubarak than confronting the Ayatollah of Iran. (This line of attack has been blunted by the fact that Obama has, in fact, been confronting the Ayatollah with regular statements, and the fact that few of the critics go so far as to actually side with Mubarak.) In the great middle of Republican thought–from Speaker John Boehner to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to 2012 candidate-in-all-but-title Mitt Romney–there has been mostly silence.
Send in Matt Drudge to keep the news cycle spinning. “GADDAFI: OBAMA IS A FRIEND,” reads the banner headline on his eponymous website right now. The link goes to a year-old interview Gaddafi gave with a London-based newspaper, in which the Libyan autocrat said of the U.S. President, “He is someone I consider a friend. He knows he is a son of Africa. Regardless of his African belonging, he is of Arab Sudanese descent, or of Muslim descent. He is a man whose policy should be supported, and he should be assisted in implementing it in any way possible, since he is now leaning towards peace.”
We can set aside, for the moment, whether anything said by a tyrant who has supported some of the most horrific moments in recent human history is credible. The question of how Gaddafi actually feels about Obama is a fascinating one, which is actually well described in the leaked State Department cables published by Wikileaks. In those cables, we see one of Gaddafi’s sons complaining about a lack of support from the U.S., announcing he was “fed up” with his treatment by the Obama administration, and complaining that Muammar Gaddafi had been “embarrassed” on his last visit to New York by U.S. officials. This happened only months before Gaddafi publicly declared Obama a “friend.”
To understand the back and forth, let’s start with a cable sent on February 11, 2009, just weeks after Obama had taken office, where U.S. diplomats in Tripoli reported to the home office that the Gaddafi regime was “anxious” about Obama adopting less friendly relations than the Bush Administration.
Since the President’s inauguration, Muammar al-Qadhafi has taken a number of steps – a DVC with U.S. students, a New York Times editorial and a letter to POTUS, and February 10 comments relating to Libya’s chairmanship of the AU and potential cooperation with the U.S. – that appear to be part of an orchestrated effort by the GOL to engage the new U.S. administration and remind it of Libya’s strategic importance. On January 21, Muammar al-Qadhafi participated in a direct video conference (DVC) with students and Georgetown University. [It was] Billed as a talk on his proposal – dubbed “Isratine” – for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem and clearly designed to showcase Libya and remind the new administration of its strategic importance in the wake of implementing the comprehensive U.S.-Libya claims agreement last October. . .
Subsequent cables describe a Gaddafi regime desperate for approval from Obama, which was largely withheld, even as it continued to limit the movement of U.S. diplomats in Libya and denounce outreach of diplomats to civil society groups as internal meddling. It didn’t really work. Though the U.S. government continued to support U.S. business interests in the county, there was little patience for the regime’s continued double talk. Diplomats suspected that Gaddafi was seeking public approval from the U.S.–and to associate himself with Obama–as a way of facilitating his continued abuses.
The apparent contradictions are not coincidental: al-Qadhafi and other senior regime figures have effectively played for time since 2003, quietly pursuing improved relations with the U.S. and western powers and initiating (to an extent) overdue internal reforms while simultaneously seeking to reassure skeptical conservative regime elements that their positions and prerogatives will not be hurt by those initiatives. They have manipulated, with varying degrees of success, opaque and ill-defined lines of authority and decision making within the GOL to:
1) avoid the emergence of alternative centers of power;
2) maintain control, and;
3) avoid directly addressing the contradiction between the regime’s revolutionary rhetoric and the reality of its recent policy shifts.
The cables describe repeated requests from two of Gaddafi’s sons for more direct military aid, including weapons purchases, which were denied. In November of 2009, one of the sons, Saif al-Islam, called in U.S. diplomats to complain about the U.S. relationship and explain the Libyan decision to stop the shipment of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) out of the country, which Gaddafi had agreed to with the Bush Administration.
Saif al-Islam explicitly linked Libya’s decision to halt the HEU shipment to its dissatisfaction with the U.S. relationship. Saif said the shipment was halted because the regime was “fed up” with the pace of the relationship and what it perceived as a backing-out of commitments to bilateral cooperation. The areas of specific concern were Libya’s purchase of military equipment (non-lethal and lethal weapons), an update on what was being done with Libya’s centrifuges, movement on the Regional Nuclear Medicine Center, and financial assistance for the chemical weapons destruction program, including construction of the destruction facility. Saif pledged to solve the HEU crisis and to allow the shipment to move forward as early as next week if the USG expressed a renewed commitment to the relationship and to deeper engagement. Saif noted that the message needed to be conveyed to (or addressed to) Libyan Leader Muammar al-Qadhafi.
The complaints continued:
Continuing his lament, Saif said the U.S.-Libya relationship was “not going well.” Since his last visit to the United States in 2008, Saif said that both sides had deviated from the roadmap that had been agreed upon at that time, which specified cooperation in the military, security, nonproliferation, civilian-nuclear, and economic spheres. He asserted that the roadmap had gotten “lost” due to his own “disappearance” from the political scene and “preoccupation with other issues overseas.” He acknowledged that he was disconnected for a long time but that he was back on the political scene — although he was careful to caveat that he had not yet accepted an official role in the regime.
Saif raised a few recent incidents that he argued illustrated how things were going wrong. First, he pointed to Muammar al-Qadhafi’s recent trip to New York, which in Saif’s opinion had not gone well, because of the “tent and residence issues and his [pere Qadhafi’s] inability to visit ground zero.” He said that all three issues had been complicated by local U.S. authorities and had humiliated the Libyan leader — “even tourists can see ground zero without permission, but a Head of State cannot?” Secondly, Saif believed that his father’s UNGA speech had been misinterpreted by U.S. audiences; he specifically focused on statements involving moving the UN Headquarters outside of the United States and various assassination investigations (JFK, Rafik al-Hariri, etc.). Saif stated that the elder Qadhafi meant no offense by his statements, but was merely trying to “pave the way” for any future decisions that POTUS might make related to those issues. Lastly, Saif noted that the Libyan leader was worried about U.S. intervention in Africa. The elder Qadhafi was also against the linguistic and political division of Africa into “North” and “Sub-Saharan” Africa and wanted countries such as the United States to treat Africa as a single entity rather than two blocs.
Saif said that Muammar al-Qadhafi was serious about deepening engagement with the United States and establishing a relationship with the Obama Administration. Saif said that his father did not want to “go back to square one,” but wanted to move the bilateral relationship forward. Saif emphasized the Libyan leader’s interest in meeting POTUS in a third country if a meeting in the United States was not possible. Such a meeting would help overcome the negative history that our nations shared, would support the rebuilding of trust, and might even help with U.S. Embassy operations and activities in Libya, according to Saif.
This face to face meeting between Obama and Gaddafi was never arranged, nor were the weapons sales forthcoming. Just a few months later, Gaddafi gave the interview claiming that Obama was a “friend.” It appears to have been a public relations ploy, an attempt by the self-described “king of kings” to associate himself with the popular American president. According to secret State Department cables, it did not describe a friendship that actually existed.