The Politics of Blackmail
The cosmopolitan son of Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi is surprisingly frank about the Middle East and his former pariah state's nukes-for-prisoners deal with France. 'It's an immoral game,' says Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi.
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Whether you write his surname Qaddafi, Gaddafi, Qadhafi or Kadaffi, the son of Libya's ruler is blunt about the games he and his father are playing with the West.
In his navy blue blazer, tight white shirt, trim white trousers, white belt and white shoes, Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi (his preferred spelling) looked like he was fresh off a yacht when I met him on the Côte d'Azur Tuesday, and he was. Having played a pivotal role negotiating the cynical deals that surrounded the release from Libyan jails of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor last week, 35-year-old Saif al-Islam was taking a working vacation off the coast of Saint-Tropez.
The 35-year-old son of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi—or Kaddafi, as NEWSWEEK typically spells it—is as handsome and charismatic as his old man once was. (Muammar, in his late 60s, is now in the 38th year of his reign.) And there are times when a twitchy gesture and a slightly distracted gaze also hint at the Bedouin theatrics that make his father seem so crazy. But this offspring of tent and palace, survivor of American bombing raids, graduate student at the London School of Economics, foundation president and go-between with Western governments can be refreshingly frank, whether talking about the Middle East peace process or his country's own chaotic form of nongovernment.
Clearly Saif al-Islam was pleased with himself and the deal he'd helped broker on the medics: his former pariah state is now promised nuclear cooperation with France that includes a "very huge" and "very expensive" atomic reactor that will cost Libya "billions and billions," plus a uranium-mining project. Having surrendered a nuclear-weapons program that had no prayer of working in 2003, Libya now gets the best civil technology its money can buy.
The French, for their part, put on the table hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate the families of more than 400 children who contracted HIV at the hospital in Benghazi, Libya, where the nurses and doctor worked until 1999. (The actual cash reportedly was coughed up by the Qataris on short notice when it looked like the European Union's bureaucracy could stall the funding and queer the deal.) There are also hundreds of millions of dollars arranged by the French to fund vast improvements in Benghazi's health-care system, said the young Qadhafi, and then there are secret accords that he told me coyly he couldn't really talk about.
Given that charges against the doctor and nurses almost certainly were trumped up and they claim to have been tortured to extract their "confessions" during eight years in prison, you might think Saif al-Islam would be sensitive to the charge of geopolitical blackmail, but no.
"Blackmail? Maybe," he says, considering the word. "It is blackmail, but the Europeans also blackmailed us. Yeah, it's an immoral game by the way, but—I mean they set the rules of the game, the Europeans, and now they are paying the price." They, and the Americans, too, for that matter, are merely serving their own political and economic interests, as far as Saif al-Islam is concerned. While the medics suffered, governments and multinationals were cutting deals. French President Nicolas Sarkozy even finagled an image-enhancing jaunt for his whimsical wife, Cécilia, as ostensible liberator of the prisoners. "She is the last person to come interfere in that issue and she is the person who took the medics with her back home," said Saif al-Islam. "She's very lucky. Lots of people tried in the past and they failed." The reason: "The French [understood] the requirements and they were very flexible."
In fact, after some initial gloating when President Sarkozy made a follow-up visit to Libya last week, the French government now seems more than a little uncomfortable with some of the public revelations about its negotiations. Berlin is furious at the evident perfidy in Paris that undermined the European Union's much harder line against the Libyan government. And the French press has used the incident to end its honeymoon with the hitherto untouchable Sarkozy administration. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said yesterday that "the hypothesis" of a deal for a nuclear reactor "is far from proven," and stated flatly that the French had not paid a penny to free the prisoners. But such sophistry is hard to sustain.
In a front-page commentary, the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé waxed ironic about "our new friend Muammar Kadaffi," who has "remade himself as a virgin. He's no longer a terrorist at all. Pardoned: the attack on the [Pan Am 103] Boeing over Lockerbie and on a [French] DC-10 blown up over the desert of Ténéré. Forgotten: the attempts to make weapons of mass destruction, notably nuclear ones. Ended: the status as a refuge for criminals and terrorists that gave Tripoli its charm. Even from the psychiatric point of view, things are going better: the dangerous paranoid, the angry wild-man has become a delectable companion who's perfectly urbane. To take tea with him is pure happiness."
Of course, it's the personable young Saif al-Islam with whom most Westerners actually prefer to sip their Earl Grey or gunpowder. His youth, energy and openness seem such a contrast to the father in his Monty Python uniforms with his bloated face that looks like a reject from the back room of a wax museum.
But precisely because Saif al-Islam's manner is so cosmopolitan, I wonder sometimes if people are listening to what he actually says. And at the end of the day, because his presence is so coveted, the open question of how much authority he has may be left unanswered, or unasked.
On the Middle East peace process, for instance, Saif al-Islam dismisses the idea of a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians as "not viable," and says his country wants no part of the Saudi-backed peace initiative that is supposed to offer the Israelis peace with the whole Arab world.
After the elder Kaddafi got into a heated public exchange with Saudi Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah at an Arab summit in Beirut in 2002, he reportedly mounted a plot to kill Abdullah in Mecca. The alleged conspirators were rounded up and both the Saudis and Americans made some of the information about them public. When I talked to Saif al-Islam, he could have denied that his father's people are still playing those kinds of games, but didn't. "I heard some story that they tried and failed," he said. "I have no idea."
Closer to home, Saif al-Islam talked about Libya's need for a constitution. "Nothing is well defined," he said. "And because nothing is well defined, you open the door for rumors, speculation, expectations, you know, because nothing is clear and transparent." But, in fact, his father has used the chaos of his self-styled "people's" regime, in which he holds no formal title, to keep the population insecure and himself firmly in power since 1969. Does he back his son's plans for a constitution? "I think so," said Saif al-Islam. "Maybe not 100 percent."
The two truly critical areas of contact and cooperation between Libya and the West are in the realms of oil and espionage where, it seems, Saif al-Islam has relatively little to say. The head of Bulgaria's intelligence service, for example, said Monday that the intelligence services of "a score of countries" were involved in the complex negotiations to free the nurses. A key figure was the former head of Libyan intelligence, Musa Kusa. When I asked Saif al-Islam about Kusa, he said, "Yeah, he was a member of our team," and left it at that.
As for oil, a critical question is who owns the stuff lying beneath Libya's soil: the nation, or the foreign companies that are buying it through what are called "product-sharing agreements." Oil companies want those millions of barrels of crude as assets on their books, but this is such a loaded question for Arab nationalists that most Middle Eastern oil producers won't even contemplate such arrangements. Libya has embraced them, however, which is one reason oil companies have so wholeheartedly embraced Libya. "Yeah," said Saif al-Islam. "We have sharing agreements. It's very tricky whether they own the oil or not. Legally, it's very tricky."
In the end, not surprisingly, it all comes down to money. But Saif al-Islam must have learned that lesson even as a kid. After the Reagan administration tried its best to kill his father and, for that matter, him and the rest of his family in a bombing raid on Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986, Saif al-Islam remembers that they all hated the United States. Then came the years of sanctions led by Washington after Libya was implicated in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Yet all that time, a British subsidiary of Halliburton was building public-works projects in Libya worth billions of dollars. Dick Cheney, who was running the company back then, was quoted by colleagues as saying he had some qualms about that deal. But, then again, he had a fiduciary obligation to his stockholders. And the paychecks just kept coming.
No wonder Saif al-Islam is so comfortable with self-serving cynicism. If you're a Qadhafi, that's what makes your world go around.