A Libyan Charm Offensive

To the shores of Tripoli with the son of Qaddafi

Tripoli, Libya—Perhaps I overestimated the bien-pensant British understanding of “modernity.” When the BBC reported that “at Tripoli’s ultra-modern airport…you could be almost anywhere in the world,” I expected at bare minimum a Starbucks, a fake Irish pub, and (this is the ultra bit) a bank of vending machines dispensing iPods and noise-canceling headphones.

Well, perhaps we came through Libya’s spillover airport, its Midway or Stansted, because this is “anywhere in the world” only in some mad, dystopian-novel sense. Available for purchase are Egyptian gum, cheap watches celebrating 40 years of the Libyan revolution, and glossy magazines with Hugo Chavez on the cover. Sinister men in baggy uniforms, all puffing Marlboros, shout at each other and disappear with my passport. I later find out this bit of theater was required because I possess a passport stamp from Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. After some discussion, my personal government apparatchik informs the entire staff of Libyan customs that, on orders from high, this particular learned elder of Zion can be allowed through.

It’s not entirely clear why I am in Libya, although it would have been rude to refuse a trip funded by the generous and, according to their hired help, deeply misunderstood comrades of the Qaddafi Foundation. At the behest of Saif al-Qaddafi—Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s slick, London-educated son and dauphin—our group of journalists is being shuttled to the country in an effort to demonstrate a new Libyan openness and, it is implied, a future rather different from the past. Personally, I’m more interested in sneaking a glimpse at the world’s only Islamo-socialist personality cult.

The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

It doubtless keeps Qaddafi pere awake at night that had he tamped down the rhetorical goofiness and sartorial excess (and maybe a terrorist bombing or two) his country could have been like Castro’s Cuba or Sandinista Nicaragua in the eyes of the West. In the 1970s, Libya promoted itself to European revolutionary tourists and gringo sugarcane harvesters in Havana as a socialist alternative with a moderate religious component. The regime took part in all sorts of radical-chic nastiness too: bombing a German disco full of American soldiers, talking nonsense about collectivizing the Sahara, and providing the Provisional IRA with the weapons needed to kill wayward Catholics.

After the Qaddafi coup of 1969, The Nation head-faked in Libya’s direction, telling its readers in 1970 that “it is indeed apparent to even the most casual visitor that no form of racism exists in Libya,” including anti-Semitism. How a casual visitor determines the total eradication of racism in a foreign country was left unsaid. In 1981 another Nation writer stressed that “most of the country’s 3 million people…have enjoyed a rising standard of living since Qaddafi came to power and continue to support the government.” How an outsider determines a dictatorship’s level of popular support was, again, left to the imagination.

But even to those governed by the elastic moral standards of that era, Qaddafi and his aviator sunglasses never managed to become an icon. Forty years after the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was established, you’re not likely to find college students underlining passages in the Green Book, Qaddafi’s famously nutty exegesis on something called “third international theory.” Sure, there were brief flirtations with both the extreme right and the extreme left in England, with the neo-fascist National Front attempting to enlist Libya’s financial support (and getting a pallet of Green Books for its trouble) and the pro-Soviet miners union leader Arthur Scargill actually succeeding in securing both moral and financial support from the Qaddafi regime. But all in all, Libya chic never caught on.

At an empty gift shop in Tripoli (which, oddly, displays a Norwegian flag behind the seldom-used cash register), I pick up an English-language copy of Qaddafi’s book, hoping to gain some insight into the ideology that for 40 years has suspended this country in time. The Green Book is Hitlerian in both its breadth of subject and its impenetrable prose style. Qaddafi expounds on whatever pops into his mind, from the evils of private property to the art of wrestling, from abolishing the wage system to the universal right to own a Soviet car. Passages like this one, anatomizing black African culture, may have alienated potential Western adherents: “Their backward social traditions are responsible for the absence of restrictions in marriage leading to an unchecked and high birth rate. This is at a time when other races are diminishing in number as a result of the practice of birth control and other restrictions in the laws of marriage, as well as a preoccupation with work; this is in contrast to the black people whose lassitude is due to living in constantly hot climate [sic].”

The Colonel’s Private Junkyard

Libya ought to at least resemble a wealthy country, with its vast oil reserves and all those desperate politicians willing to do almost anything in exchange for access to them. Yet Tripoli is covered from end to end in garbage. Among the few benefits of living in a dictatorship, I had presumed, were that the trains run on time, crime is low, and armies of revolutionary trash collectors ensure that tourists tell their friends the country might not have elections but is at least exceptionally clean.

Remove the oil economy, and it isn’t entirely clear what Libyans do for money. The only shops I spot are selling either vegetables or cigarettes, sometimes both. There are markets trading in all manner of junk: old sewing machines, toilets, fake perfume (Hugo Boos seems particularly popular). The most frequently promoted product (aside from the ubiquitous face of Qaddafi staring down from countless billboards) is, inexplicably, corn oil. After decades of crippling trade sanctions under an aging and increasingly batty dictator, and with no tourism industry to speak of, Libya’s economy is a shambles. In their latest Index of Economic Freedom, the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal rank the country 171st out of 179, only slightly edging out the Union of the Comoros and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Besides sucking the economic life out of Tripoli, Qaddafi determined that the capital city, once a playground for Italian and British colonizers, must also be denuded of fun. Alcohol, which for years helped people forget they lived in Libya, is prohibited. Nonalcoholic beer is available in our hotel (a five-star, though it appears to have been graded on a curve), but only to placate (or taunt) the few Western visitors who pass through. The pious Muslims of Libya are not unlike vegetarians, surrounding themselves with pointless facsimiles of the forbidden, from beef bacon to bottles of booze with all the booze removed.

No matter how hard governments try, though, it is increasingly difficult to close a country to all malignant Western cultural influences. The tighter the controls, the more pedestrian the content that sneaks through. Libyan teenagers have scrawled “50 Cent” and “Tupac” throughout Tripoli’s largest souk. On a crumbling yellow wall outside a bootleg DVD shop, someone was inspired—doubtless by a contraband hip-hop CD—to scribble “fuck yo” in defiance of nothing much at all. Inside the DVD shop, the Hollywood film Fat Albert is available for a few dollars—popular, presumably, because the title character, like most Libyans, lives in a junk yard.

Corrective Studies

But we are not here to investigate how Libyans entertain themselves or to talk to the hoi polloi about Islamic socialism. Soon after arriving, along with three other journalists and one academic, we are racing in a convoy of black Mercedes Benzes, hazard lights on, horns blasting (and never met with a counter-honk), to meet the first group of terrorists recently released from Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison. All are former members of the Al Qaeda farm team known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

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  • TallDave||

    Michael Totten's Libya trip is a must-read. As he says, it's a Stalinist state where no one is drinking the Koolaid anymore.

    http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001029.html

  • John Tagliaferro||

    I keep confusing Totten with Welch whenever I see his name. I think I discovered their blogs at the same time.

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    The article is gone.

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    No matter how hard governments try, though, it is increasingly difficult to close a country to all malignant Western cultural influences.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    cheap watches celebrating 40 years of the Libyan revolution

    Do they have "revolution" printed on a clear disk attached to the seconds shaft like those nifty Che watches?

  • Old Mexican||

    New at Reason: Michael C. Moynihan on Libya's Charm Offensive

    Well, I do find that shirt offensive...

  • Old Mexican||

    The pious Muslims of Libya are not unlike vegetarians[...]

    Maybe if we stressed this point enough, those overbearing, arrogant bastards would leave us the f@#$ alone!

    And I meant the Pious Muslims! I mean, who wants to be associated with "vegetarians"? Yuck!

  • ||

    It's funny how eager the U.S. government is to forgive and forget Libya - quite a contrast to the hard-line approach taken with, e.g. Iran. Why?

  • ||

    To be fair, Libya has backed the fuck down. Iran hasn't.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Might have something to do with one of them shipping all their nuclear production magic to the US and ratting out everybody who helped them vs. one of them doing the opposite.

  • John||

    Yeah, but Iran is far brason, knowing that they recieve up-to-date weapons from Russia. Not to mention their meat slicer reviews. Libya, for one has some of the oldest military weapons around. So there is a difference between the two.

  • A new Reason reader||

    This is the second time in just 3 days where I haven't been able to get past the first few paragraphs of an article because of the writer's sarcastic tone. In both cases (the other is "A Conspiracy So Immense"), the writer is the same. While I don't doubt that Mr. Moynihan is an intelligent person and talented writer, his style and tone are contrary to what I've come to expect from Reason's sophisticated, thoughtful analyses and observations. If I wanted sarcasm, I would tune in to John Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, or Keith Olbermann.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    Unless you want to wretch, never tune in Olberdumb.

  • I Heart Capitalisms||

    Autocracies are tragic up to a certain degree of absurdity, past which they become tragicomic. It's not unfair to say that Lybia is in tragicomic territory.

    "And although America might have provided support to Muslims in the past, this doesn’t matter because it was for our own self-interest, not because we realize that Islam is the one true faith."
    This point is really telling. It's basically impossible to explain to some leftists and Islamist apologists that a balanced foreign policy that's not always altruistic is not a reasonable excuse for fanatical anti-Americanism.

  • ||

    "If I wanted sarcasm, I would tune in to John Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, or Keith Olbermann."

    Sarcasm is contrary to Reason? Wow. You ARE a new reader.

  • Robert||

    As to candidates getting 100% of the vote, does it ever occur to observers that that could be because nobody else wants the job? Seriously, would you want to be QuackDaffy's successor? Or to assume the office of anybody else in that regime?

  • Sergeant Scriver||

    As a Vet that's touched bottom soil (or sand) in a few of these nations, I found much of Moynihan's article to ring true, particularly

    No matter how hard governments try, though, it is increasingly difficult to close a country to all malignant Western cultural influences. The tighter the controls, the more pedestrian the content that sneaks through. Libyan teenagers have scrawled “50 Cent” and “Tupac” throughout Tripoli’s largest souk. On a crumbling yellow wall outside a bootleg DVD shop, someone was inspired—doubtless by a contraband hip-hop CD—to scribble “fuck yo” in defiance of nothing much at all."

    I'll never forget the day I drove through downtown Kuwait City to see "THUG LIFE" spraypainted on the side of a closed Kuwaiti gas station. It was definitely a WTF moment. Sarcasm or not, I've experienced the same sorts of situations described by Mr. Moynihan in just about every Arab country I've visited.

    While acknowleding The Nation's (usual) leftie trumpeting of a crummy socialist regime, one aspect to the whole Libyan saga was the perpetual whoring-for-Khaddafy displayed by many African-American "leaders" in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly Louis Farrakhan, the Congressional Black Caucus, and Jesse Jackson. Remember when Khadaffy promised black Americans a billion dollars after the Million Man March? I would think in light of Libya now being off the terrorism list, and the condition of America's economy, that Obama would be calling in his black muslim chips and asking ol' Muammar to make good on that promise (lol).

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    I agree that the article is good and can definitely be defined as hilarious but I can't see any accompanying photographs and your remark made it much more curious for me. Perhaps I am not looking in the right place or maybe it was just removed? Anyway, I'll keep looking, electric griddle, All the best, Matthew.

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  • tony||

    ya know one thing I never really got?...why all the Che Guevara shirts, never any american paraphenelia for the 'leader of the revolution'...and why did Moynihan do this interview, as opposed to Sean Penn?

  • tony||

    by the way, this is absolutely in total contradiction to an essay found in 'EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG' (from the appropriately named 'Disinfo Publishing Company'...ha!!!!!)...the essay in question was Robert Sterling's "Viva Qaddaffi"...somebody has it all wrong...Moynihan has a point...how can casual visitors to Libya really know about their proclaimed raised social standards?

    According to Sterling...there are no homeless citizens, and they have a high literacy rate. I wonder if Moynihan can tell us anything about that?

    Can anybody help me go in the right direction about where to get the real facts?

    As far as literacy standards go...some say the same as Cuba. I wonder how people can make such a connection between high literacy rates and dictatorships? Please help me here!!!

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    You mean like Assad of Syria loosened his choke hold on Syrians to earn a seat at the table? Excellent article Michael.. Thank you

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