Remembering a wild interview with Moammar Kadafi
REPORTING FROM SEATTLE -- The call came unexpectedly one cool afternoon to my office on a palm-shaded side street in Cairo. "The leader would like to speak with you," said a man in heavily accented English.
I had been in the Middle East long enough to know that "the leader" could be only one person: Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi, whose minions in the Tripoli bureaucracy often had the habit of raising their eyebrows appreciatively when they said it.
The short of it is, I said yes.
Thus began a journey that rivaled T.E. Lawrence's journeys on camelback across Arabia. It was 1994, and with United Nations sanctions banning air travel to Libya, getting there involved flying to Rome, then Tunis, the Tunisian capital, then embarking by hired car along a narrow, two-lane highway to Tripoli. From there, it was another long drive to Surt, Kadafi's hometown, the place where he liked to linger when there weren't leader-type things demanding his attention elsewhere.
On the day I was summoned to the leader, he was under mounting international pressure to hand over suspects believed responsible for the fatal bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. He wanted, I suppose, to strike a tone of defiance (that would later be belied by his agreement to, in fact, hand them over).
I was invited into the large, cool tent in Surt outside a modern hotel complex that Kadafi used for welcoming guests, and was told to wait. Sweet tea was brought. Then more tea, as time passed.
Finally he drifted in like a stiff wind and sat himself majestically in a chair opposite mine. His eyes found mine briefly as I rose to greet him and extended my hand, which he ignored as he looked away and appeared impatient to get on with it.
I thanked him for agreeing to the interview (it would be impolite to suggest it was his idea, I thought) and got straight to business. With the world clamoring for cooperation on the Lockerbie issue and his own citizens impatient with international sanctions and threats of worse, what was he going to do?
Staring vacantly into space, he commenced through an interpreter to talk about the great Arab revolution, its assault by imperialism and, having rounded first base, sprinted toward second with an assault on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
I took notes dutifully, wondering how much time I had to get to the point. I haltingly interrupted and interjected another question.
It seemed clear to me that something much more than a wandering mind was at work here. He was either on drugs or had lost his mind, it seemed to me.
His eyes would scan the ceiling as he slumped over in his chair, appearing to be searching earnestly for a way to make a point there was no way I would understand. My attempts to get him to the point were either ignored or greeted with an irritated bark.
Often, he would interrupt the interpreter to correct a translation of a remark that made no sense in either language.
Eventually, though, risking his fury, I cornered him into a couple of points and wrote down a few coherent quotes. Reading back over my story now, there are precious few.
"There are no circumstances whatsoever under which we can turn them over," Kadafi said of the Lockerbie suspects. "Even if there is a war."
He was not ruling out continued support for violent Palestinian resistance groups, he said, but neither would he necessarily stand in the way of a peace between Palestinians and Israel.
"If there is a real peace process, we will support it fully. We will wait for the result. If the result brings about peace, then it is good," he said.
"But you can't just talk about recognizing Israel. Things cannot be put in that way. Because if you ask one party to recognize Israel, then you have to ask Israel to recognize the other party. When are they going to recognize Palestine? Are we seeking peace, or just the recognition of Israel? If it is just the recognition of Israel you're after, then we have to sacrifice peace. This is what has delayed the peace process, and we may never achieve peace in the long term."
As I sat there in the tent that day, I couldn't help but think of the handsome young army officer who had seized the reins of his nation in a coup and pledged to unite the Arab nation in a transcendent dream of shared power, independence from the West and oil-fueled prosperity.
As years went on and the dream of Arab unity faded, Kadafi's insistence on holding on to the idea started sounding, to everybody else, more and more like madness. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was dead. Palestine Liberation Organization founder Yasser Arafat was dead. Maybe the difference between what Kadafi had envisioned and how things turned out proved to be too enormous a gulf.
The end of his brutal, quixotic regime -- the old man's body kicked around in the street by the shouting throngs of the new Middle Eastern spring -- unfolded like the sad, violent pages of Arab history.
-- Kim Murphy
Photo: Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi laughs during a meeting in a tent in his hometown, Surt, in 2004. Ten years earlier, correspondent Kim Murphy met the Libyan strongman in a tent in the same town. Credit: John Moore / Associated Press