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How and why did the west change its view of Gaddafi?

Regarded as an ally post 9/11, the western world’s view of Gaddafi changed drastically in a matter of months. Here’s what world leaders were saying about the Colonel then and what they say now.

Silvio Berlusconi with Muammar Gaddafi (File photo)
Silvio Berlusconi with Muammar Gaddafi (File photo)
Image: Associated Press Photo

THE DEATH OF Muammar Gaddafi brought with it statements from western leaders about an end to tyranny and new beginnings. Their view of Gaddafi has altered dramatically over the past eight months.

Indeed it is not the first time the west’s view of Gaddafi has utterly changed.

He was once considered a pariah, a brutal dictator, and perhaps most damning of all a state sponsor of terrorist atrocities carried out across the world. Then in the post 9/11 world he was welcomed back into the arms of western leaders who shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries with the Colonel at international summits.

The reasons why Gaddafi was so reviled in the west in the 70s, 80s and 90s are clear.  He provided the IRA with semtex to carry out their atrocities here in Ireland, in the North and on mainland Britain.

As well as this, he was ideologically and financially fully behind the fight of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. His government was also alleged to have been complicit in the brutal 1988 Lockerbie bombing and a nightclub bombing in Berlin two years before that which killed two US soldiers.

Such actions and views led to him famously being described by US president Ronald Regan as the “Mad Dog of the Middle East”:


But after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States much of that changed.

Blair and McCain

Gaddafi appeared to rehabilitate his image with the west particularly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq when it was felt he feared the prospect of a similar incursion on his country.

He backed up his words of condemnation for Al Qaeda and decommissioned his weapons of mass destruction, which then British Prime Minister Tony Blair described as a “courageous” decision.

Contrast that reaction and the 2007 meeting between Blair and Gaddafi in which the PM warmly embraced the Libyan autocrat with a recent television interview in which Blair fully advocated the removal of the Colonel from power, explaining the reasons for his change in views:


But it was not just in the UK that the attitude changed.

Former US presidential candidate John McCain tweeted in 2009 about his meeting with Gaddafi at his “ranch” in Libya: “Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his “ranch” in Libya – interesting meeting with an interesting man.”

Contrast those warm comments with his statement yesterday in which the Republican senator appeared to welcome the death of Gaddafi as “an end to the first phase of the Libyan revolution.

“While some final fighting continues, the Libyan people have liberated their country,” he added.

Later a smiling McCain appeared on BBC’s Newsnight and pointed out that governments in Syria, Russia and China should be “nervous” about the message sent by the fall of Gaddafi adding: “It is the Spring, not just the Arab Spring.”

Europe and the US

For further evidence of how western leaders courted Gaddafi in recent years you need not look at words but pictures of him on an international stage with the likes of Gordon Brown, Vladimir Putin, Nelson Mandela and Silvio Berlusconi.

As Euronews reports in 2007, a Libyan flag and even a Bedouin tent were erected in Paris in honour of the visit of Gaddafi where there was even a lavish reception at the Elysee Palace.

In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi enjoyed a warm relationship with the Colonel, exchanging hugs and handshakes when they met and as this video shows, the Italian prime minister was even prepared to kiss the hand of the Libyan leader:


Now, in France Sarkozy has been one of the leaders driving the NATO mission along with British prime minister David Cameron. While in Italy, Berlusconi has embraced the National Transitional Council (NTC) which as much warmth as he once did Gaddafi.

Even US president Barack Obama shook hands with Gaddafi as recently as 2009 at a G8 summit but yesterday following news of the dictator’s death he commented: “The dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted.

“And with this enormous promise, the Libyan people now have a great responsibility.”

How can this change in views be explained?

Quite simply, western leaders will argue that the turning point came when Gaddafi’s rhetoric went from the bizarre and rambling to the downright dangerous as he vowed to never give up in his struggle to crush the “cockroaches” who were behind the revolution in Libya.

As Blair alluded to in the above video, Gaddafi’s actions on the international stage in appeasing western demands were not matched by actions that appeased his own people at home. For the ordinary Libyan people, they had had enough.

The imminent humanitarian threat to Benghazi, which had been overtaken by rebel forces whom Gaddafi vowed to crush led to states in the Arab world joining calls from the west for intervention and the eventual imposition of a NATO no-fly zone.

This effectively meant it was only a matter of time before his rule was toppled as it was in August when Tripoli fell.

For some Gaddafi’s death denies victims of his rule a chance for justice and closure as noted in today’s Financial Times editorial but as Robert Fisk writes in today’s London Independent perhaps the absence of any trial is a good thing for some

“How the West must have been relieved that there would be no trials, no endless speeches from the Great Leader, no defence of his regime,” he writes. “No trials mean no accounts of rendition and torture and no cutting of sexual parts.

“So let us not recall any grovelling to Gaddafi,” he adds.

More from the death of Muammar Gaddafi:

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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