One of the more interesting revelations in the WikiLeaks diplomatic disclosures was Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi's extreme consternation at being prevented from pitching his tent in New York and Englewood, NJ, at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September, 2009. Here is how the New York Times summarized it:
Colonel Qaddafi was so upset by his reception in New York that he balked at carrying out a promise to return dangerous enriched uranium to Russia. The American ambassador to Libya told Colonel Qaddafi's son "that the Libyan government had chosen a very dangerous venue to express its pique," a cable reported to Washington.
To quickly recount the story, Qaddafi customarily pitches a Bedouin tent on his diplomatic travels where he receives VIP visitors and guests. As the leaked cables reveal, because Qaddafi is afraid of staying in any building where he is not on the ground floor, he decided on taking up residence at the Libyan-owned compound in Englewood, New Jersey, which also has about five acres in which to pitch his tent. A massive, multi-million dollar renovation of the derelict property was undertaken to ready it for the dictator.
That property, as fortune would have it, happens to be immediately adjacent to my home, separated only by a mesh fence. When I saw the massive renovation and the timing of it just a few weeks prior to Qaddafi's arrival, I concluded that such massive expenditure could only mean that Qaddafi, having just been turned down by the city of New York from pitching his tent in Central Park, was coming to Englewood. Together with our mayor at the time, my friend Michael Wildes, we organized massive public resistance to Qaddafi's planned arrival, culminating in a public demonstration of hundreds of Englewood residents on my front lawn with Governor Jon Corzine, Senator Frank Lautenberg, and Congressman Steve Rothman in attendance. International press saturation of Englewood residents' resistance to Qaddafi's arrival led the autocrat to change his plans and stay at the Libyan UN mission in New York City instead.
The story is well known. But we have now discovered just how much it irked Qaddafi to be kicked to the curb by a small New Jersey town. The man is a tyrant and used to getting his way. With enough oil to bribe governments like Britain and Scotland into allowing the Lockerbie bomber to be released from jail after only eight years and after having murdered 270 people, no doubt he thought he people would turn a blind eye to his history of savage murder and welcome him with open arms. He learned, however, that decent American folk have a long memory when it comes to killers who fund international terrorism, not to mention an intense dislike for autocratic rulers who for 40 years have brutalized their own citizens into submission.
And what makes the new WikiLeaks revelation so relevant? Because we now know how badly monsters like Qaddafi want to be accepted and how angry they get when legitimacy is denied them.
Our world has a sad history of turning a blind eye to evil. This is especially true when the evil party has a commodity the rest of the world values, with oil being the top of the list. The WikiLeaks disclosures similarly reveal the deference American diplomats continue to accord the Saudis in general and King Abdullah in particular. The king is quoted as telling the Americans in secret that it ought to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon and "cut off the head of the snake" before it's too late. It makes for interesting reading when you consider that this is another tyrant whose family has stolen the wealth of the Saudi people, brutally oppresses women, and funds Islamist extremists all over the world. Yet he is treated like a revered international figure simply because he has a commodity that the rest of us need.
As one reads through the endless revelations of other Arab leaders secretly begging America to do something about Iran, one wonders where Arab pride has gone. These fiercely proud people are so into sustaining the myth of Islamic unity that they will only say in the utmost secrecy what they really think of the dangerous Iranian regime. And rather than do anything about it themselves, like supplicants they beg America to fight their battles for them. It's a sad commentary on the noble history of the Islamic world that tyrannical rulers who hide behind American military muscle now control the lives of most of our Arab brothers and sisters in the Middle East.
So why do the rest of us tolerate these tyrants? One reason. They have oil. And we'll compromise our values and our decency and protect their power just so we can continue to quench our insatiable thirst for the black gold.
But one small group of American citizens decided that we did not want a killer in our midst. We weren't ready to sell our souls for what Qaddafi had to offer.
At the height of the battle against Qaddafi, close friends of mine came to me with two arguments. The first was that I ought to be really careful. Qaddafi was an extremely dangerous man. You might end up dead in a ditch somewhere, they told me, and you have nine kids to think about. The second argument was that I was making a terrible mistake. Qaddafi is rated by many as the richest man in the world. Rather than opposing him, go and welcome him. Aside from having a very powerful contact, he might be the key to Middle East peace.
My response was -- Come on, we Americans living in fear of some tin-pot dictator like Qaddafi? And on our own soil? Never. The second was that I can be as materialistic and ego-driven as the next guy. But to sell my soul to the devil? Give me a break.
Not all embraced that philosophy. A few months after the Qaddafi battle press stories appeared about a New Jersey filmmaker who accepted a multi-million dollar investment of blood money from Qaddafi's son to make movies. That the businessman was Jewish just added to our shame.
Then there is the City of Englewood itself, which continues to allows Qaddafi's former Foreign Minister and current Ambassador to the UN, Abdel Rahman Shalgham, to live in our city completely tax-free. Congressman Rothman, who worked hard to oppose Qaddafi, later, through the press, puzzlingly told me and the other Libyan neighbors that we all ought to live together in peace.
As a Rabbi I am well aware of the Biblical injunction to love your neighbor. But in this instance decent people everywhere would no doubt agree that a completely different emotion is probably more appropriate.