03/11/2011 05:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gaddafi on Political Assassinations and the Glory of Suicide

Not since the days of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (1971-1979) has political opera bouffe been on such prominent display. The erratic behavior and preposterous claims of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi -- probably the only contemporary politician whose life was the subject of an opera (produced in September 2006 by the English National Opera under the title Gaddafi: A Living Myth) -- make it difficult to take him seriously, yet some of the utterances he made during his 42 years in power warrant closer examination. They provide insights into his mindset and help explain the nature of his relations with other Arab leaders.

Gaddafi, whose official title is "Brother Leader of the Great Libyan Arab People's Jamahiriya," has taken to calling all opponents to his rule terrorists, and even accused Osama bin Laden of spiking the Libyan supply of milk with hallucinogens. Yet, in 1985, at a time when he was a leading financier of international terrorism, he declared: "Yes, I am a terrorist when it comes to the dignity of this nation. I will take up responsibility and begin terrorism against the Arab rulers, threaten and frighten them, and sever relations. And if I could, I would behead them one by one."

At least one assassination attempt has been well documented. It happened after a spat with then-Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at an Arab Summit held in 2003. Gaddafi, just as he was officially renouncing terrorism, set out to assassinate the de facto ruler of that country. Details of the plot surfaced following the arrest on financial charges of Abdul-Rahman Al-Amoudi, a high-profile Muslim American activist. A steady stream of revelations about payments of about one million dollars made by Libya to help arrange the assassination did not derail the impending reconciliation between the United States and Libya. In June 2004, the two countries resumed diplomatic relations. The following month, Al-Amoudi recognized his role in the assassination attempt, and pleaded guilty to financial and conspiracy charges, for which he would be sentenced to 23 years in prison.

At a time when the Iraq war was going badly, the fiction of Gaddafi's transformation was politically useful. With an impending presidential election, the architects of the war promoted a new narrative: it is the war in Iraq that led Libya (not a member of the Axis of Evil) to abandon its nuclear program, and other rogue regimes would soon follow suit. Sanctions were lifted, and normalization began. In addition to reintegrating the "community of nations," Gaddafi embarked on a program of reform and hired high-powered lobbyists, consultants and public relation specialists in Washington to burnish his image and encourage American investment in Libya.

Another Gaddafi quote worth pondering goes back to July 1982, when Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) forces in Beirut were cornered following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The situation was desperate, and mediators were in a frantic search for an Arab country where Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership could seek refuge. Long a patron of the Palestinian resistance, and one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause, the Libyan ruler promised in a public statement that Libya would "place all of its resources at the disposal of Syria and the Palestinian resistance," before addressing the PLO chairman: "I advise you to commit suicide rather than to accept disgrace. Your suicide will immortalize the cause of Palestine for future generations. Your blood is the fuel of the revolution. Let suicide be the priority. It is the road to victory".

The current situation in Libya is still unsettled but it was reported that Muammar Gaddafi had been negotiating in the past few days an exit strategy with Libyan rebels and foreign governments. Whether he will heed the advice he once gave to another beleaguered Arab leader remains to be seen.