Dubious courage and doddering wisdom

Today marks the beginning of a new year, one which will either begin to dispel that dark and dismal cloud that has long enveloped this grief-ridden Arab world or will, like the last one, bring only more destruction and desolation. As is often the case with year ends, I was stirred by the spirit of contemplation and endeavoured to pinpoint a specific event that would encapsulate what has happened to the Arab world, and speculate what tomorrow may bring. It did not take me long. Libya’s decision to abandon its WMD programme, I decided almost immediately, is an illuminating event par excellence.

On 19 December Colonel Muammar Gaddafi announced that Libya had resolved to get rid of any nuclear, biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction in its possession and to abandon all programmes for manufacturing internationally banned weapons in the future. Hardly had the Libyan leader dropped this curious and unexpected — at least to us — bomb than US President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair hailed Libya’s "courageous and wise" decision. They also let us know that this decision had not come as a surprise to them, but rather was the fruit of lengthy and secret negotiations during which time the Colonel had allowed US and British inspection teams into Libya to ascertain, for themselves, the accuracy of the information he had provided, therefore proving his sincerity and credibility.

Only moments later, Gaddafi’s son appeared on television screens around the world to declare that he had no connection with the arrest of Saddam Hussein, and to confirm that the secret negotiations between Libya and the US and Britain had begun more than nine months ago, ie before the invasion of Iraq, and not just before Saddam’s capture.

This was followed by the Libyan media hailing the "wise and courageous" decision of their great leader, which would usher in a new era of prosperity and development for the Libyan people.

I do not know exactly why these developments suddenly seemed to sum up not just the past year, but also an entire era which is crumbling before our eyes, and to presage not only the year to come, but a new epoch in a lost and forsaken Arab world. But it did, and I felt it merited closer inspection.

It struck me first that the man who made this momentous decision had come to power through a military coup, and has ruled Libya uncontested for a full 34 years. Throughout this period he has steadfastly played the hotheaded revolutionary, determined to place the potentials of his small but rich country at the service of Arab nationalism and spearhead the global revolution.

Since deciding in 1977 that Libya would become the "Great People’s Arab Socialist Republic" it was only natural that he would seek to equip his country with the WMDs commensurate with that status. However, it took a third of a century after reaching power, a quarter of a century since declaring the Great Republic and 13 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union for him to discover that Libya does not possess the makings of a superpower; that the world today has no place for a single pan-Arab state, let alone a global revolution; and that his country, therefore, has no need for WMDs or programmes to develop them. Thus, with the same complacent ease with which the Colonel single-handedly decided to possess WMDs, he single-handedly decided to get rid of them and roll out the red carpet for international inspectors.

If Gaddafi had been sincere in his declaration that changes in the regional and global order had prompted him to make significant changes to his old policies, he would have appeared before his people to explain things. If Gaddafi were truly courageous, he would have owned up to his mistakes and asked his people to forgive him. Then he would have embarked on some radical reforms to pave the way, through free and fair elections, for the rise of a new political elite that would rule in the name of constitutional legitimacy, and he would have left to that elite the onus of making a decision of such magnitude. After all, political reforms of that nature are the only way to avoid repeating the same mistakes and prevent the endless, futile and erroneous cycle. Had Gaddafi handled the matter in a rational and democratic way, perhaps the beleaguered Libyan people could have forgiven him for his mistakes, indeed sins, and even elevated him to the ranks of a true hero. Sadly, however, tyrants never change, or if they do in their own tyrannical way, it is for the worse. Therefore, instead of apologising and stepping down, Gaddafi decides to change his skin, in the hope of winning the approval of the masters of the new era, even if this means he has to go full circle and lead the counter-revolution against himself, at his own pace of course, in order to perpetuate his regime in its new guise. Only in this context is it possible to understand his decision to open his country up to inspection and show his willingness to comply with everything Washington and London ask.

Perhaps Gaddafi sincerely believes that his decision was wise and courageous, because in so doing he has spared Libya, in this era of merciless US hegemony, from a fate similar to that of Iraq. If so, he has failed to truly appreciate what Saddam Hussein had wrought upon Iraq. Saddam’s true pitfall was that he imagined that he could purchase his perpetuity in power by placing himself at the disposal of the West, only to discover too late that he was simply a tool to be used for as long as was expedient and then to be tossed in the garbage can.

It seems that the same scenario is to be repeated, to the letter, with Gaddafi. Washington is not so much interested in ensuring that weapons inspectors have access to WMD locations in Libya as it is in access to Libya’s oil. There is also an interest in developing another avenue for pressuring Egypt, Syria, the radical Palestinian factions and Iran into accepting a settlement of the Middle East conflict on Israeli terms, condemning "terrorism" as the US defines it, and eliminating all WMDs in the region, apart from Israel’s.

Perhaps Gaddafi will be required to sabotage Arab attempts to reach a settlement in which the minimal level of Arab demands are met and Israel is forced to relinquish its WMDs.

Since Gaddafi has a rap sheet as long as your arm, which can be pulled out when needed as long as he remains in power — and perhaps even if he bequeaths his revolution to one of his sons — Libya will have to do Washington’s bidding. Herein reside the seeds of disaster. Nothing could be more dangerous than for Libya to become the thorn in the side of the Arab order, undermining all attempts to conduct a rational relationship with the outside world. This is not a question of whether getting rid of WMDs is a good decision — of course it is. It is a question of who takes that decision and how, and of whether this is a matter that would best be handled collectively and, perhaps, held back as a means of exerting pressure on Israel.

Perhaps the Libyan people had supported the idea of Arab nationalism and even the idea of global revolution. But I would bet that large sectors of that great people, like me, failed to understand the connection between Arab nationalism and military intervention in other African nations such as Chad, Uganda and the Central African Republic. I also believe that, like me, they found it difficult to fathom how Gaddafi could ignite the global revolution by merely opening up his nation’s coffers to provide financial and logistic support to the Irish Republican Army, to the ETA separatist movement in Basque Spain and to the Islamist movements demanding regional self-rule in the Philippines. They must have wondered how Colonel Gaddafi could qualify as a global revolutionary leader merely on the basis of that long and convoluted name he invented for his country, his distinctively decorated uniform, his personal female guard corps and his tent and camels that accompany him wherever he goes.

I do not think the Libyan people have lost their faith in the belief that Arab unity can deliver the Arab nation from its plight. Nor do I think that they have lost their faith in the need to stand up against the manifestations of American global hegemony. But I am certain that they have lost their confidence in a leader who has remained prey to a juvenile leftist radicalism since he first came to power at the tender age of 28, and I am certain that they believe that this leader who has failed to steer his country through its revolutionary phase is unqualified to steer it to stability and development.

Perhaps one can accept that the entire Arab people, and not just the Libyans, would cheer a young and vibrant revolutionary leader blazoning the banners of Arab nationalism and unity. But can one accept that this leader remains in place after a 34-year period of failure? One has only to compare what the Colonel’s revolutionary leadership has done for Libya with what Sultan Qabous — who came to power at about the same time — has done for Oman, and with nowhere near the same resources at his disposal.

If Gaddafi’s decision to abandon WMDs throws into relief the type of regime that uses slogans as a tool for sucking the blood from its people and squandering its resources, it also exposes what the US wants to achieve in this region, no matter how wildly it waves the flags of democracy. In the twinkling of an eye a regime that Washington once branded as rogue and tyrannical has become brave and sagacious, not because it has suddenly shifted from revolutionary to constitutional legitimacy, but because its leader decided to stop playing the enfant terrible and to start "behaving himself". The Libyan WMD issue is the issue that most illuminates the tragedy of the Arab world because it epitomises just how much the Arab world is caught between despotism at home and tyranny abroad.