Gaddafi Calmly Takes On the Experts

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 -- The King of Kings of Africa was taking questions on Thursday.

A day after delivering a rambling, 95-minute speech before the U.N. General Assembly -- during which he spewed invective and seemed to revel in his own histrionics -- Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi had arrived before the Council on Foreign Relations, the Manhattan bastion of America's foreign policy and business elite.

For Gaddafi, it was a coming-out party of sorts. He was visiting the United States for the first time since he took power four decades ago. And he was offering an hour of his time for unscripted questions. His answers, spoken through an interpreter, seemed unscripted as well.

He scolded a questioner from Human Rights Watch for not understanding his Third Universal Theory of society. He called accusations that his country once supported terrorism a "fallacy." And he denied involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Near the end, when Theodore Sorensen, once an aide to President John F. Kennedy, asked Gaddafi whether the council's president, Richard Haass, who is Jewish, would be as welcome in Libya for such an open forum, Gaddafi turned the question on its head: "I'm really surprised that such a question is raised," the Libyan leader said, denying there was any religious discrimination in his country. "Does this mean that in America you make distinctions among people based on religion?"

On the question of why Libya decided to renounce its nuclear and chemical weapons programs six years ago, Gaddafi replied: "The world was in a different situation than exists now."

"All nations took pride in their ability to produce" weapons of mass destruction, Gaddafi said. "It was like a tradition -- something to be proud of." He added: "We were a young people. We were revolutionary. We were excited, and we were part of that time. We took that path."

"The cost of those weapons was very, very high, and we made a strategic assessment of who were the potential targets," Gaddafi said. "We realized it was more cost than benefit to Libya."

Gaddafi also spoke of his support for "liberation movements" in the Middle East and Africa, including for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who, Gaddafi said, "was once considered a terrorist" but later "was received at the White House and got red-carpet treatment."

For the hour, Gaddafi spoke calmly, almost in a professorial tone. He only once appeared defensive, when asked why -- if Libya did not support terrorism in the past -- did he agree to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and pay compensation to the families of the victims. "Libya was never indicted as the culprit or the one responsible," Gaddafi said. "We never acknowledged any guilt." He said Libya accepted that one of its citizens was involved, but "that does not mean the state is responsible for those actions."

When Minky Worden, the media director of Human Rights Watch, asked Gaddafi for an update on planned reforms to Libya's penal code and constitution, he chastised her for not understanding the system in his country, where, he said, there is no government, but rather all decisions are made by the people through "people's congresses."

"You may not believe that," Gaddafi said, like a teacher lecturing a skeptical pupil. "You may not have read the Green Book and the philosophy behind the Third Way theory. . . . We have annulled the government once and forever."

Afterward, many members of the council expressed less than satisfaction with Gaddafi's answers, but many were also surprised that he had come at all.

"It was a positive thing," Worden said. "But can anyone do this in Libya?"

Sorensen later said that, after Gaddafi's appearance Wednesday before the General Assembly, there had been some trepidation about the council session.

"I think a lot of people . . . wondered whether they were going to be hearing 90 minutes of bombast," Sorensen said. "He was well behaved, he was well modulated," Sorensen said, noting that Gaddafi was even on time.

Sorensen added: "I don't know what they think about him describing Libya as having no government, no president and no cabinet ministers."

Not all of those greeting Gaddafi were impressed. On Wednesday, Libyan dissidents joined family members of Lockerbie victims for a protest rally outside the United Nations. One group of Libyan students and exiles had launched a new Web site, called, to highlight human rights abuses in Libya.

"We're working for the regime to be over," said Abdullah Darrat, 27. "It's been 40 years of mismanagement, corruption, injustice." He called the new American rapprochement with Libya "hypocritical," because Gaddafi "hasn't changed anything with human rights violations. He hasn't apologized" for past terrorism.

The Final Call, the newspaper of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, ran a front-page photo of Gaddafi with the headline: "Welcome to America." In an editorial, Farrakhan praised Gaddafi and his Green Book.

"He has been a friend of the struggle of Black people all over the world for true liberation," Farrakhan wrote.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company