Adam Curtis On Muammar Gaddafi


Col Gaddafi – a real threat or a pantomime clown?

The BBC is having a rough time right now because of the Jimmy Savile scandal and if the reports of what happened in the Newsnight offices are correct then deservedly so. At the same time it would be a great pity if right-wingers in the Cameron government use it as an excuse/opportunity to do what some Tories have long wanted to do to the BBC, which is to dismantle,  privatise and effectively destroy it. How fortunate that at this moment the one man who could make that happen, Rupert Murdoch, is hobbled by his own scandal.

Adam Curtis, a BBC jewel

If there is one reason why the BBC deserves to survive it is because it gives a home and an outlet to journalists and film-makers like Adam Curtis. His mammoth, epic study of neoconservatism and Islam, The Power of Nightmares – released in 2004, a year after the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq – gave a cogent and mesmerizing explanation for events since 9/11, in particular the need of both, especially the neocons, to create the myth of a dangerous enemy. Now that is not exactly a new idea – what was the Cold War about? – but he put the hypothesis together in a very convincing, revealing and absorbing way.

Curtis has returned to the theme of how a myth shapes history with a long essay, illustrated by some fascinating BBC archive material, on Colonel Gaddafi, the deposed and assassinated Libyan leader, a subject that readers of this blog will know has long fascinated me. “He’s Behind You”, which appears on a BBC blog, outlines Curtis’ theory that Gaddafi created a myth about himself that the West happily co-opted and which sustained and benefited both. The myth was that Gaddafi was a seriously dangerous threat to the West while the reality was that the Libyan leader was really a clown, a pantomime character as Curtis calls him, whose antics enabled leaders like Reagan forge a more aggressive US foreign policy more or less cost and risk-free, paving the way for where we are now. In return Gaddafi acquired a status as an international trouble-maker out of all proportion to the threat that he really posed, and strutted the world stage in a way that otherwise could never have happened.

I have to say that I think he is spot on. Two episodes stand out. The first in 1986 was the bombing of a Berlin disco which killed an American serviceman. Reagan used that attack to launch a bombing raid on Tripoli, facilitated by Margaret Thatcher, which targeted Gaddafi himself and allegedly killed his adopted daughter. It is now widely believed that Syria was really responsible for the disco  bomb not Gaddafi, but Syria was a close ally of the Soviet Union and any reprisal on Damascus could risk a much more serious confrontation with Moscow. How much easier to blame Gaddafi and flex  American muscle as a warning to others in the region?

The other incident was the downing of the PanAm flight over Lockerbie in 1988. Curtis, like others who have examined the evidence, clears Gaddafi of any responsibility and lays the blame at the feet of Iran and Syria. Iran had a motive – revenge for the downing of an Iranian airliner by the US Navy – and Gaddafi did not. And Syria, still allied to the Soviet Union, was Iran’s closest friend in the Arab world. Again, on the flimsiest and most doubtful of evidence, Gaddafi was blamed but the sanctions against Libya and the isolation of Gaddafi that followed set a precedent for treating the West’s Middle East enemies that was applied to Saddam, Iran and now Assad, a precedent that more often than not has led to the overthrow of the despised leader.

If I have one criticism of Curtis’ approach it is that he skimps over the period following Gaddafi’s rehabilitation by the West, led by the noxious Tony Blair but soon joined by a gallery of rogues and scoundrels, from Berlusconi to the neocon savant Francis Fukuyama, all eager to plunder Gaddafi’s oil treasury. Nor does he dwell much on the dubious circumstances of the revolt against Gaddafi, which has all sorts of interesting aspects worth investigating, not least the fact that Western corporations will soon have access to Africa’s – and possibly the world’s – largest underground source of water. And water, as they say, is the new oil. But all in all, a fascinating piece of work by Adam Curtis and a tribute to the BBC for sponsoring it. Read, watch and enjoy!

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