Gadhafi Never Had Influence Outside Libya

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For decades, Libya limited its contacts with the West. Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, talks to Steve Inskeep about Libya's history, and whether it was ever influential in the Arab world.


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

As the chaos in Libya deepens with the eastern parts of the country having apparently moved out of the authority of the central government, and Moammar Gadhafi defying protestors in the capital, Tripoli, we're going to take a step back and try to better understand this country which, for decades, has limited contacts with the West.

To help us better understand Libya, we've called on Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to that nation.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. OLIVER MILES (Former Ambassador, Britain to Libya): Thank you.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should begin by asking how long there has been a Libya. Weren't there several countries, at one point, in that spot on the map?

Mr. MILES: Yes. Libya in its present form was put together after the Second World War by the United Nations. I think, really, the starting date is 1950.

INSKEEP: Nineteen fifty, it had been for a period before that - what - an Italian colony?

Mr. MILES: Yes, most of it had been an Italian colony. The further south part had been under the French. And the British had had quite close relations with the eastern part, Cyrenaica.

INSKEEP: This seems significant, given that different parts of the country seem to be moving in different directions. They actually had different colonial rulers and there were different nations there in past decades.

Mr. MILES: I don't want to overstate that. I've been wondering myself, at some moments in the last few days, whether it could break up again. I think this is a bit of a red herring. I don't think it's going to break up. I think the truth is that the protest movement has been successful in most of Libya, outside the capital city. But in the capital city, the struggle is still really in front of us, I think.

INSKEEP: How did Gadhafi come to power, Moammar Gadhafi?

Mr. MILES: He came to power by a military coup - which, of course, was described as a revolution in nineteen fifth - 1969, I beg your pardon. He overthrew a very feeble monarchy, which had been patched together and was running this very poor and very new African state.

INSKEEP: What did he stand for?

Mr. MILES: He stood for the same things that President Nasser of Egypt, at that time. So he stood for anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, Arab unity, the fight against Israel.

INSKEEP: Now he has come to seem, to us in the West, as something of a caricature. But was there a period in which he was, in fact, the major Arab leader that he seems to believe himself to be?

Mr. MILES: No, I don't think there was. One of the problems about Libya is that it's a, of course, a relatively small country; it only has a population, now, of somewhere around six million. It's large in territory but most of the territory is desert. And it's never been an influential country, and it's not admired or highly regarded by the rest of the Arab world.

So although he tried very, very hard to present himself as an Arab leader and a force for unity in the Arab world, he was never accepted outside Libya in that way.

INSKEEP: How did Libya get so closely linked with terrorism, and alleged and eventually proven acts of terrorism, over time?

Mr. MILES: Because Gadhafi believed in this anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist struggle. I think he had, at the beginning, a slightly naive approach to it. He found that very soon, he had to get a little bit more sophisticated because every so-called freedom movement around the world was coming to Libya with its hand out for some cash, and they didn't all get it - but some did.

INSKEEP: Because he had money, people would come to him and he would find himself fraternizing with various armed groups and armed men.

Mr. MILES: Exactly. He was convinced that the IRA were a freedom movement and that they deserved his support. And he gave them support and he gave them some weapons. And that, of course, caused trouble between Libya and Britain, which was only sorted out really in the 1990s, when he managed to demonstrate to the British government that he no longer was supporting the IRA.

INSKEEP: Well, now that's interesting. You're saying that after a period of supporting the Irish Republican Army, he backed down. There was a period, of course, in which his country was linked to the Pan Am 103 bombing. There were many other incidents, as well.

Did he significantly change, though, in more recent years?

Mr. MILES: Yes, he did. I would say, certainly, 15 years ago he began seriously rethinking his position. And, of course, one of the reasons for that was because, previously, he'd - although he was never an ally of Moscow in the Cold War days, he always had a kind of hope, I suppose, that if relations with the West got too bad, Moscow would bail him out. And that lifeline no longer existed, so he started to change his position for that reason.

But I also think he changed his position because he's an intelligent man and he's capable of learning from his mistakes. The big story, you know, was weapons of mass destruction. Why did he get rid of weapons of mass destruction? We'll, the truth is, I think that he came to the conclusion that if Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, they certainly weren't going to save him from American attack.

And he realized that holding weapons of mass destruction, or a program of weapons of mass destruction, was not any use from Libya's security point of view. And I think it was a rational decision to give them up.

INSKEEP: Oliver Miles is a former British ambassador to Libya. He now travels to that country as a business consultant.

Thanks very much.

Mr. MILES: Thank you.

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