Robert Fisk: Straw reinvents despotic little killer Gaddafi as courageous statesman

22 December 2003

The problem I have with the whole Gaddafi saga is that the Libya I know can scarcely repair a drain or install a working lavatory in a hotel.

Yet this same Libya, after years of sanctions, was apparently making a nuclear bomb. Libyan nuclear scientists. Say those three words over and over again. Really? And what was that odd word in the Downing Street announcement? "Programmes''? Wasn't that exactly what Mr Blair accused Iraq of developing after the weapons of mass destruction he had told us all about turned out to be non-existent? According to the usual anonymous "US officials'' who daily grace the front pages of American newspapers, Libya had not actually acquired a nuclear bomb but was "close to developing one''. But what does that mean? How close is close? A year? Ten years? Some time?

Of course, Gaddafi used to be fascinated by weapons. Like the dictator in Auden's wonderful poem, "The poetry he invented was easy to understand... he was greatly interested in armies and fleets".

I remember the crazed, sticky evenings in Tripoli when the wretched man would celebrate his own revolution with a seven-hour military parade, tank after tank, missile after missile, not one of which was ever used. There was even a 300-strong squad of black-suited frogmen who would march panting past us in the stifling midnight heat in snorkels, their giant flippers sticking to the hot Tarmac.

And I can believe that among the vast, useless armada of clapped-out Soviet-era tanks and sand-dusted Sukhois and MiG-23s that litter Libya's vast and largely unmaintained military bases, there are some old chemical shells.

Rabta has been the centre of a thousand stories based on "intelligence sources" - close relatives of "US officials "- who have credited the factory there as a producer of biological agents, chemicals, centrifuges and other nasties. But who exactly were all these weapons - or programmes - designed to erase from the face of the Earth? Egypt? Sicily? Algeria? And if they were to be sold to "terrorists", which ones did Gaddafi have in mind? Were they going to be sold off to the IRA when the best Gaddafi could do for the latter was a boatload of old guns that got followed by the Royal Navy? Or to the Islamic extremists whom Gaddafi had been executing with Saddam-like brutality in his own country - but for whom of course there will be no opening of mass graves. That he supplied details of Al-Qa'ida operatives to us wouldn't be surprising. They are as much a danger to Gaddafi as they were to Saddam; only that's not quite the story that being written for us.

No indeed. Far from being another despotic little killer, Colonel Gaddafi is now, according to Jack Straw, "statesmanlike and courageous''. And as long as Mr Blair complains that the whole miserable circus in Iraq persuaded Gaddafi to disarm - even though the Libyans totally deny this - then all the lies told to us by the Prime Minister about Saddam's 45-minute threat can be forgotten. Or so he must hope.

Gaddafi the statesman. The Arabs themselves will ponder this new Strawism with awe. Even President Mubarak of Egypt - a patient man if ever there was one - could voice his irritation with the tiresome Libyan whose vanguard of militia cuties were freighted around the world to guard their seedy boss.

He once turned up in Belgrade with a white charger upon which he planned to ride in triumph through the Serbian capital to the non-aligned conference. Yugoslav officials vetoed the horse but allowed him to pitch a tent in front of one of Belgrade's biggest hotels in which he would drink fresh milk from three massive dromedaries specially flown into the city. And this is our new "statesman".