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Getting to Know Gadhafi: Examining the Quirks, Intellect of Libya’s Strongman

February 23, 2011 at 6:33 PM EDT
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Jim Lehrer talks about the legacy and personality of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi with longtime Middle East correspondent Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post and the Middle East Institute's David Mack, who was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli during the 1969 revolution that brought Gadhafi to power.


JIM LEHRER: Now we talk to two Americans who have known the Libyan leader for a while. Ambassador David Mack was a political officer and translator in the American Embassy in Tripoli at the time of the 1969 revolution that brought Gadhafi to power. He went on to serve as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs as well. He is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute. Jim Hoagland is a contributing editor to The Washington Post, where he writes a column on foreign affairs, which he has done for many years. He was a long — also a longtime Middle East correspondent for the newspaper and first met Gadhafi in 1973.

Ambassador Mack, what were your impressions of this man in 1969?

DAVID MACK, former State Department Official: Well, when I met him in September, shortly after the revolution, it was clear to me immediately that he was the top guy among the Revolutionary Council officers that we’d been meeting with.

He had charisma. He had an ability to speak in public with a fairly high degree of eloquence in Arabic. He conveyed sincerity. He was self-confident. And I think he was very convincing to Libyans.

JIM LEHRER: Did he have a philosophy, something that he wanted to do as the leader of the country…

DAVID MACK: Well, at that point, he was developing his philosophy.

He was obviously — like anybody their late 20s, like me in the room with him, he was idealistic. He was personally ambitious. And he was ambitious for Libya. He wanted Libya to be a real — a country that had been sort of tromped upon and ruled by other people for so long, he wanted it to really amount to something, and he obviously wanted to be a world figure.

JIM LEHRER: Did he say that?

DAVID MACK: He didn’t say that.

But you — you gradually became aware of that. And, also, you gradually became aware of the components that have gone into his — what I call his intellectual formation. Like a lot of young Arabs of that generation, he’d grown listening to Radio Cairo, the speeches of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and tended to pattern himself a little bit after Nasser.

But he also — he — in addition to his military technical education, he had got a master’s degree in history. He had read a lot of stuff. And there was a strange mixture, a lot of utopian socialism, very much non-Marxist utopian socialism, ideas about the traditional Arab bedouin tribal code of honor, the idea of Islamic egalitarianism, that everybody is equal in the eyes of God, along with a lot of anti-imperialism, Third World attitudes, a feeling of resentment against particularly the Italians, who had been very brutal colonizers, but also against the British, the Americans, who had air bases in the country, a feeling of resentment.

And these things sort of became mixed all together in what became his philosophy a few years later.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you — Jim, you first met him in 1973, right? Tell us about that. What was that about?

JIM HOAGLAND, The Washington Post: Well, it was a difficult meeting.

I had — I was based in Beirut at that point. And I had just been in Khartoum, Sudan, where a gang of Black September terrorists had taken hostages of American and European diplomats, and some Arab diplomats as well. One of them was my friend. And I stood outside the embassy there as they killed those diplomats.

And I stayed around for a while and developed evidence that the leader of this terrorist gang had flown to Tripoli and had been welcomed by Gadhafi’s security services. When I found out that Gadhafi was going to have a press conference in Tripoli shortly after that, I made sure to get there. And I stood up in the press conference and challenged him with this evidence. He denied it. We got into a very forceful conversation.

JIM LEHRER: Right in front of everybody?

JIM HOAGLAND: That’s right.

He then sent over an aide, saying that he wanted to see me afterwards alone. That left me with a little bit of uneasiness, I confess. But I went. And it was, again, a very forceful conversation that he began by leaning across and peering at me and saying, “Why do you drink poison?”

And I said, “What do you mean?”

And he said: “You drink alcohol. You drink poison.”

And I said, “You don’t know if I drink alcohol or not.”

And he went into a rant about how all of Western society, all of Western civilization was decaying, was terrible. And the conversation went downhill from there. So, that was my first impression. And, interestingly enough, it was framed through the lens of terrorism. And that was a constant in his career and a constant in my relationship.

And the next time I saw him was in Tripoli – was not in Tripoli, but it was in Algeria. Katharine Graham and I had gone to Algeria to do some reporting. And we learned that he was in the country and wanted to see us.

So, we flew to Iran and sat down. And he said that he wanted to meet with Mrs. Graham first alone. And I was a little nervous about that, but I said, all right. And she was eager to do it. And so, 10 minutes went by. I assumed it was just a polite custom.

JIM LEHRER: Was he speaking in English the whole time?





JIM HOAGLAND: But I wasn’t in the room.


JIM HOAGLAND: But I began to get very nervous about it. So, finally, after 15 minutes, I brushed pass security, went in. And they were sitting there talking.

And Gadhafi had spent the 15 minutes complaining about a story that The Washington Post had run by Bob Woodward suggesting that he was a pill-popping, cross-dressing dictator. And Katharine had tried to defend the paper as well as could. Again, Gadhafi denied those charges. I’m not sure whether they were any more credible than the ones that I had made against him in — after Khartoum.

So, those were my first two meetings. And they were not very successful ones.

JIM LEHRER: But do — what about his — his intellect? But bounce off of what Ambassador Mack said about.

JIM HOAGLAND: Well, it’s precisely right. I mean, Gadhafi was crazy like a fox in many ways. He had done a tremendous amount of reading, as you said.

But it seemed to me he never really integrated it. He’d never come up with a real philosophy of what he wanted to do, beyond the extreme bitterness that he felt about the West and the anti-imperialism. And that’s what he poured his money into. And that’s what drove him into the most extreme forms of terrorism.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you have stayed in contact — not direct contact, but you observed him through the — since then. In fact, you saw him earlier the — or last year, right?

DAVID MACK: Yes, in New York.

JIM LEHRER: In New York, yes.


JIM LEHRER: When did you first pick up the idea that this guy might be a little bit weird?

DAVID MACK: Well actually during those early meetings in Tripoli in 1969-1970, there were times in the conversation when this guy, who obviously had a powerful intellect — he had total recall of what — of the conversation that had taken place a month earlier.

And yet, during the course of a conversation, when the U.S. ambassador was talking to him and I was interpreting, I would see his eyes kind of glaze over and go up to the ceiling. And I wondered whether he was listening.

Then when it came his time for response, it was clear that he’d been taking it all in. He had a coherent response. But there was this feeling that he wasn’t all there. And I will admit I was troubled by this.

And there were signs of, you know, that there might not be a total emotional grip on things.

JIM LEHRER: And what about his weird clothing, Jim, and that sort of thing, those kinds of stunts? Well, at least that’s what they were seen as anyhow.

JIM HOAGLAND: I guess he wanted to make his mark. He wanted to be remembered. He wanted to show people that he was somebody.

It would be interesting to try to psychoanalyze him, but unfortunately you don’t know enough about his childhood, really, to be able to do that.


JIM HOAGLAND: But he clearly didn’t mind making an odd impression on people.

JIM LEHRER: Both — both the interviews that I did and that Robert MacNeil did with Gadhafi were punctuated by asking a question and then his not answering. I mean, there would be this looking around and all of that, and eventually he would answer.

Was that your experience with him as well?

DAVID MACK: Well, my initial experience was he could be quite articulate. He could maintain an argument and be effective.

I have to contrast that with his recent speeches in — both in New York and the one yesterday, and with the discussion that we had in New York, where you felt he was always jumping around, and there was no kind of coherent train of convincing argument.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you both this, finally. He said — and the whole world heard him say it now — that: I’m not going to resign. I will — we will — I’m going to last until my — the last drop of blood of mine is dropped.

Do you agree — do you believe him?

JIM HOAGLAND: I think you can take that at face value. I think you have to wonder if he has a grip on reality, much less control of his country at this point.

Nobody is going in and telling him how bad things really are. If they did, he wouldn’t believe it, and he would probably punish them for doing that. So I think he’s in the bunker, and he’s there to fight on until the last.

JIM LEHRER: Literally until he dies?

JIM HOAGLAND: I think so.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

DAVID MACK: Well, I agree with Jim.

Part of what came through in his speech yesterday, which I listened to, at least large parts of it in Arabic, was that he really believes the Libyan people will rise up with him at the end of the day. They’re not going to let the fruits of the revolution dribble away.

He really — you could see he really believed that. And yet he did end with those — I thought, very, very convincing case that he was going to fight to the last bullet. I think martyrdom will be attractive to him, a lot more attractive than going into exile. Where would he go? Zimbabwe? I mean, and what would he wear?


JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. All right. OK, well, thank you. We will see what happens.

Thank you both very much.