Libyas Gaddafi: Is there method in the madness?

Gregg Reese | 3/16/2011, 5 p.m.

On Saturday, March 12, an American naval battle group anchored around the aircraft carrier Enterprise gathered in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of civil-war-torn Libya, ready to provide either humanitarian aid or military intervention as the drama in that polarizing nation unfolds.

This staging of military force is reminiscent of another assembly that occurred in the same region on a March day in 1986 as the United States faced off against Muammar Gaddafi (alternately spelled Gadhafi, Khaddafy, or Kaddafi, etc.) who at 41 years in office is the longest ruling non-royal head of state.

By virtue of his garish wardrobe, his act of granting asylum to notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, his elite force of 40 virgin bodyguards (known unofficially as the Amazonian Guard), his voluptuous blonde Ukrainian nurse, his provocative proclamations, rumors of his complicity in terrorist violence, his verbal provocations to the West and overall eccentricity, he has never remained out of the media spotlight.

Gaddafi first came to power when he and a cadre of junior officers overthrew King Idris I in 1969. In staging this coup, they emulated Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egyptian Revolution of 1952, which is viewed as a pivotal point in both Arab history and Third World politics because it inspired the subsequent overthrow of several governments in the Middle East. Gaddafi quickly adopted a policy of opposition to the West, and to America especially, earning the enmity of no less than President Ronald Reagan, who dubbed him "the mad dog of the Middle East." Throughout his reign, questions have been raised about his sanity, but he is undoubtedly a wily manipulator and a master of political presentation, alternately adopting the causes of Pan-Africanism, Pan-Arabism, and pro-socialism, as the needs fit the situation to achieve his own ends.

Islamic socialism
The production of oil in the 1960s transformed this traditionally impoverished nation into one of the most affluent in the region, and Gaddafi used this jackpot to finance such radical military outfits as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and any group considered oppositional to imperialism. He also earned American loathing, because of his suspected culpability in a rash of 1981 terrorist bombings in France and Italy.

Allegations of Libyan involvement in a series of airport firefights and hijackings spurred the U.S. deployment of warships off Libya's coast, leading to a series of armed engagements between aircraft and ships from both forces on March 23, 1986. Libya suffered the loss of several vessels and dozens of personnel. Additionally, on April 5, a 2-kilogram bomb exploded in "La Belle," a West Berlin discotheque frequented by off-duty African American servicemen, which prompted a U.S. airstrike in which several Libyans died and one American aircraft was shot down.

In the years following, a number international incidents further strained international relations, especially the 1989 detonation of a bomb on a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all its passengers and crew, along with 11 townspeople hit by debris as the plane plunged to the earth. The bomb contained Semtex, a Czechoslovakia-manufactured plastic explosive heavily exported to Libya, raising suspicions that Gaddafi was behind the attacks, although the Libyan government has always denied responsibility.