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What Will Gaddafi Do?

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For a short time in 1969 I probably knew more about Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi than any other American. I was then a young diplomat attached to the American Embassy in Tripoli. Since I was the most junior member of the embassy's political staff, I was given the worst job -- as liaison officer to the sprawling American air base just outside the city. For a year, I settled minor customs disputes, bailed drunken American airmen out of the Tripoli jail and played a lot of beach volleyball.

That all changed on September 1, 1969, when then Lieutenant Gaddafi and his Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) toppled the old king and took control of the country in a single night.

Qaddafi came out of nowhere. Very few Libyans and virtually no foreigners knew anything about him, including the intelligence organizations of the US, UK, Soviet Union and Egypt. He was raised in the desert and spent nearly all his short Army career out of sight in the Signals Corps -- which, as the only organization capable of controlling communications throughout the entire country, proved to be the perfect place to plan and execute a coup in a land with a few urban centers separated by a lot of sand.

Needless to say, Washington D.C., was desperate to know more about a man who now controlled not just Libya but its burgeoning oil wealth -- and the real estate under what was then one of the most important US air bases in the world.

In that pre-Internet world, the only way to gather intelligence was the old-fashioned, person-to-person way. Since a number of young officers in the Libyan Air Force were involved in the coup, and since I was the only American diplomat with decent contacts among both these Libyans and their American trainers, all of a sudden my menial job at the air base was replaced by an assignment crucial to US interests. The Embassy gave me one week to come up with a biographic sketch of this mystery man, Muammar Gaddafi.

I collared every source I could, but Gaddafi's life was so unknown that I still came up with less than a page. But that page answered the question most important to the U.S. at that time: In the middle of the Cold War, was Gaddafi a Soviet dupe? The answer was an unequivocal "No." He thought as little of the Soviets as he did of us. The basis for his negative feelings toward the Communists was religion. We were so naive then, 32 years before 9/11, that we celebrated the fact that the young firebrand now in charge of Libya was a fundamentalist Islamist zealot.

What I wrote in that long-ago report that's perhaps most relevant to what's going on in Libya today, however, was the assessment of Gaddafi as strong-willed, charismatic and mercurial.

The man harbored a deep resentment of injustice wherever he found it. I was not surprised, for example, when Gaddafi engineered the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988 as retribution for the U.S. bombing of his house, a bombing that killed his daughter. But predicting the actions of a man as mercurial as Gaddafi is not easy. He can be absolutely statesmanlike one day and deliver speeches of neurotic ravings the next.

What do I think now, after over 40 years of tracking this man who in effect jump-started my diplomatic career? If Gaddafi goes quietly into exile, I will be very surprised. I see it as entirely in his character to fight to the death as "a martyr for the nation," as he threatens to do, no matter how much havoc and destruction this may cause. As a young man he saw himself as the savior of his country, and I am sure he still does. Now, as an elder, he also sees himself as a father to all Libyans. His ungrateful children are disrespecting him and they need to be punished, and he will die rather than suffer their insolence and rejection. Perhaps the best outcome, and not at all an unlikely one, is that Gaddafi will be killed by someone in his own inner circle before he brings the whole country down.