One of the more curious features of our time is the inordinate attention given by the Reagan administration and the American media to Libya and its mercurial dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Sporadic outbursts in Washington, echoed in the press, have served to elevate the unstable ruler of a weak. Third World police state to almost superhuman proportions. In the process, American policymakers have contributed to whatever influence Qaddafi has gained among extremists in the Middle East and deflected attention from the more effective practitioners of terror in that region. In recent years, Qaddafi has come to symbolize much that Americans think they know and dislike about the Arab and Muslim worlds, and he has provided Washington a scapegoat on which to vent frustration for failed policies toward Lebanon, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Understanding all this, British journalists David Blundy and Andrew Lycett, longtime Middle East correspondents for the London Sunday Times, try to demythologize Qaddafi in this balanced and objective book.

Qaddafi rules a land that deserves better. His is not the first regime in 20th-century Libya to achieve military domination through terror. In the 1920’s, Mussolini’s troops under General Rudolfo Graziani, in an effort to crush Libyan resistance led by Omar Mukhtar, raped and disemboweled women, threw men from airplanes, and established concentration camps in which tens of thousands of Libyans died. The movie Lion of the Desert provides a reasonably accurate picture of these events. It is ironic indeed that Qaddafi, a third-rate terrorist by Italian standards, sees himself as the heir of Omar Mukhtar within Libya and of Gamal Abdul Nasser in the wider Arab world.

Concerning Qaddafi, strange stories are told. For example, some reports have it that Qaddafi’s mother was really a Libyan Jewess who married a Saharan tribesman during the 1940’s. If true, Jewish law would of course claim Qaddafi as a Jew. Another tale is that Qaddafi is the son of a Jewish woman raped by an Italian soldier. If the latter is correct, it may explain Qaddafi’s attempts to eliminate all “foreign” influences and his pathological hatred of Israel and the West. Whatever the facts of his birth, Qaddafi’s bizarre personal behavior as head of state is not in doubt. To relax, Qaddafi occasionally lies on the floor of his office and covers his body with a sheet. GIA reports indicate that he suffers from attacks of depression and takes sleeping pills and stimulants to get from one day to the next. Although a married man with children, Qaddafi has three foreign female sexual partners (two Yugoslavs, one East German), and regularly propositions visiting female journalists. Yet no Western intelligence service considers Qaddafi insane or a buffoon whose actions do not merit the closest monitoring.

For their part, Blundy and Lycett provide a sound account of Qaddafi’s formative years, his (inchoate) political philosophy and his attitudes toward Islam, the Libyan oil industry and the country’s economic development. They present data collected by Israeli and American sources demonstrating that the principal targets of Qaddafi’s terrorism abroad have not been America, Israel, or the West, but his own Libyan opponents and political moderates from Arab and African countries. The authors discuss CIA warnings to the White House that a military attack on Libya would neither overthrow Qaddafi nor significantly reduce terrorism. And, familiar with the relevant scholarship on Libya, Blundy and Lycett assist the reader with an excellent index.

Interestingly, Qaddafi’s view of society is a holistic one. His “Green Book” occasionally sounds like a poor imitation of Fichte or Herder. The Nation is a “natural,” organic entity, compacted of family and tribe. The primary societal values, Qaddafi maintains, are solidarity, cohesiveness, and unity. The integrity of the family has unique importance: “Societies in which the existence and unity of the family are threatened,” he writes, “are similar to those whose plants are in danger of being swept away by drought or lire.” None of this has prevented him from encouraging women out of the home and into the army or from attacking Libya’s religious establishment. On both counts, Qaddafi has sought to create new, “radicalized” constituencies loyal to him alone.

Despite Qaddafi’s military rule and his use of terror both at home and abroad, there is little doubt that he has long enjoyed widespread popular support within Libya. Recently, there have been signs that this support may be eroding, as sharply lower oil prices impose constraints to which Libyans have not been accustomed since the late 1960’s. Nevertheless, as Blundy and Lycett point out, Libyans still earn more per capita than do Englishmen and enjoy free education and medical care as well. Most own a house and few are unemployed. Clearly, Libyans remain among the economic elite of the Third World. Barring a total collapse of oil prices, rampant popular disaffection with Qaddafi or his policies is unlikely.

Especially puzzling, then, is Qaddafi’s frantic campaign to eliminate his Libyan critics abroad. Ironically, Qaddafi’s efforts to assassinate Libya’s “stray dogs” overseas recall the Reagan administration’s attempt in April 1986 to assassinate the “mad dog” who rules Libya. As Qaddafi’s operations only undermined Europe’s toleration of his regime, so American bombing discouraged whatever opposition to Qaddafi may have existed within the Libyan officer corps. Silent contempt would have been a more intelligent approach for both Libya and the United States and would probably have served their national interests more effectively.

If the publisher had understood the contents of this book, the dust jacket might have avoided the spectacularly erroneous suggestion that the authors have presented new evidence concerning the enormous terrorist threat that Qaddafi poses to the West. Moreover, better editing might have eliminated some of the tedious detail accorded Qaddafi’s foreign adventures and economic relationships. These flaws aside, this book can be recommended to anyone seeking a judicious assessment of Qaddafi and Libya during the last two decades.


[Qaddafi and the Libyan Revolution, by David Blundy and Andrew Lycett (Boston: Little, Brown) $17.95]