The most important thing about the whole spectacle was simply that it happened. Closed, clandestine, secretive - those are the words usually reserved for this vast desert kingdom of fewer than 3 million people.
Yet, here we were, 100-some Americans invited by the Libyan government, always virulently hostile to the United States, to engage in a three-day open "dialogue" to better the wildly estranged relations. Everything was generously supplied, including an excellent doctor, and at times there were indeed calls for aspirin and tranquilizers.
It was not that the Libyans, who practice a very particularist kind of Islamic Arab socialism, arrived open to American explanations. As Ahmedy el-Shahati, the high Libyan official who ran the conference, said in the beginning. "This is an open dialogue in order to arrive at the truth of the Arab-Israeli struggle." Not the truths but the truth.
There were wild juxtapositions of time and place and era and metaphysical realities, as when the radical Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi exploded in his talk against "the Americans as the real terrorists" only to be followed by a tranquil former senator William Fulbright who gave the serene historic view that "All great powers throughout history have abused power, we less than others."
But there was also something else that was something new - a unique humor from the angry post - Camp David Arab side, as when Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Salam Jallud suggested to the Americans: "I'm sure your friends acted surprised when they heard you were going to Libya." A smile. "And some thought you would never come back."
There was also a recurring a new rationality that despite some angrily rhetorical sessions, turned out to be predominant. Both sides, in sharp contrast to the past, warned against the "conspiratorial" Arab interpretations that have informed (and deformed) so much of their thinking.
Arab speaker after Arab speaker - and they were almost all from the radical or more radical countries - denied that any Arab "complexes" would poison them. There was indeed a new psychological language, which American diplomats have been pushing for years and which seems finally to be seeping slowly through to the Arabs.
Indeed, throughout the conference in the People's Hall, this constant struggle between rationality and extreme emotional turbulence was being fought out before our eyes. So much so that I often personally could feel the quintessential, tormented inner struggle of the post - Camp David period being acted out before me.
Indeed, when I was the guest speaker at one session on the press, I noted that the real theme of this crucial and perhaps decisive time was whether the non-Egyptian part of the Arab world could move from its traditional "morality of purity" - thinking themselves totally right and being quite willing to die if necessary for self-righteousness' sake - to what I termed the "morality of tactics."
In the last analysis, the hopeful thing about the meeting was that, indeed, the whole thing was held, particularly at this sensitive time. The invitations to such high-level and disparate persons as Fullbright, Ambassador Dean Brown, and Georgetown University Dean Peter Krogh clearly indicated that these radicals of radicals have at least a disposition to improve relations with the United States.
But the conference also showed the depth of the psychic and emotional "wounds" (another key word of the dialogue) inflicted on much of the Arab world by the Camp David accords, which they see as clear "treachery."
The question now is whether those wounds can heal and teach or will fester and poison; whether changes toward rationality and a concern for tactics can move quickly enough in the Arab world for the accords reached at Camp David to work.
The dangers were all lurking in closed Libya dark anger of Arabs who feel they have been sold out, the helpless rage that turns into radicalization, the fragmentation that could end in repeated Lebanons throughout the Middle East.
The hope is there, too, that it remains tentative and amorphous, still to be consummated by circumstance, or one hopes, the new element of choice.