In the early spring 1982, I accompanied former U.S. Senator Jim Abourezk to Libya. National Geographic had asked him to get Libyan permission to film several sites of Roman ruins.
He met with officials; I walked Tripoli’s streets. At a coffee shop near the hotel, a group of young men stopped playing with their worry beads, brought their jumping knees into upright positions and followed me. Like most of the young men I saw, my followers were well-dressed and looked healthy, maybe a bit overdosed on caffeine.
I tried to ignore them as I wandered into the Suq – the old market – in downtown Tripoli. It was mostly boarded up. President Qaddafi had built new five-story department stores.
Two nights later, Abourezk took me to a new store. I saw large bins, typical of the U.S. Dollar stores, but filled with expensive cuisinearts. On another floor, shoeless men in robes tried on designer suits (on racks). The Pierre Cardin suits came in loud pink, orange and purple. Strange for a city without pimps or visible prostitutes! I watched some of these shoeless try the garments on and actually buy them.
One day, I dropped a post card to my daughter in a street letterbox. My uninvited escorts roared. In English, I demanded: “Why are you laughing?”
“No one pick up letters from that box,” one replied amidst giggles.
“Why are you all following me?”
The same man young man explained. “We members of secret police.”
“All Libyans are members of Secret Police,” he clarified.
The group invited me for coffee. They had no jobs, and like most Libyans lived on subsidies. Foreigners did most of the non-government work. At the hotel, Philippino men served as porters, Egyptians manned the front desk, Nubians waited on us in the coffee shop. After coffee and questions about America, they walked “our brother” back to the hotel.
In my neighborhood walks I noticed day care centers, schools, and hospitals. Qaddafi had indeed distributed oil wealth to the more than two million people who made up 1982 Libya.
Not all Libyans agreed. A waiter in a coffee shop on the road to the Roman ruins at Sabratha hated Qaddafi, “a man from a traitorous tribe.” Together with a National Geographic photographer, I explored the remains of Roman streets and architecture. Awesome, but we met no tourists.
In the early 21st Century, Qaddafi shifted his political stance. He had abandoned the terrorist support path and dropped his nuclear weapons program. In response, Western leaders welcomed the Libyan ruler – Berlusconi kissed his hand. Then, in 2011, after the Arab Spring, the elected pinnacles of democracy in NATO capitals charged him with threatening the lives of his own people – as if that would bother colonial powers who had routinely slaughtered Africans and still back ruthless repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The NATO elite convinced a bare majority vote of the Arab League, and maneuvered a UN supporting mandate. Then, NATO launched an eight-month blitz on Libya – to protect its people.
With still uncounted thousands dead, NATO leaders beamed: their air power had finally worked – as it had not in Vietnam or Korea – to destroy a “rogue” government. They forgot that the previous years they had feted Qaddafi; and the Libyan strongman had helped them in the war against terror. For abandoning his nuclear option, Qaddafi learned (briefly): no good deed goes unpunished or remembered.
NATO flew 26,000 sorties, many with bombs and missiles, but only against “military targets” – not the Roman ruins. They issued no reports of Libyan deaths. But news footage showed dead bodies and destroyed homes. NATO’s spin: “Hurrah, the world is rid of the evil Qaddafi.”
Anyway, the dead were bad guys; otherwise, good NATO pilots wouldn’t have killed them because their mission was to protect innocent civilians.
In 2010, the NATO government encouraged their arms merchants to supply Qaddafi with “a seemingly limitless supply of weapons.” Indeed, “at an arms fair in Tripoli; only a few days before the NATO operations started, French and Italian companies were busily upgrading Libyan air-force and army equipment.” .
NATO and its entourage located and destroyed many of the European-supplied weapons. When the new government cohered, would the same weapons dealers replace the stock NATO forces had destroyed?
NATO recognized the victorious democratic Libyan rebels. These NATO “democrats” had committed numerous human-rights abuses according to Human Rights Watch monitors. In Sirte, investigators discovered 53 corpses were found in an abandoned hotel – all pro-Qaddafi people.
In Tawarghaby, victorious insurgents took brutal reprisals against pro-Gaddafi residents. Secretary of State Clinton chortled (“We came, we saw, he died”) while reporters noted some rebel units refused to disarm; others looted and abused their captives.
Not important. NATO’s adventure was a successful humanitarian intervention. It saved lives and upheld democracy. NATO withdrew. Who’s next?
P.S. Every day I spent in Libya I saw Qaddafi. At 5 p.m. the TV screen showed desert, with a small black spot in the middle. A very slow zoom began. By 5:05 a back shape emerged, which, by 5:07 appeared to be a man praying. You guessed it. By 5:10 Qaddafi bent his head to the ground and brought it up again in prayer. I won’t miss him – even on TV. But the postcard I mailed at the supposedly dead letterbox arrived in Washington – nine months later.
Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP plays Dec 3 at 5:30 and 7:30 at the Tishman Auditorium, New School for Social Research, 66 Fifth Avenue.