Opinion writer

Ali Aujali, until recently Moammar Gaddafi’s man in Washington, is impressively agile.

Eighteen months ago, he penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal defending the adulatory welcome in Libya for the man convicted in the Pam Am 103 bombing. Aujali said there was evidence the terrorist was “an innocent man,” and argued: “Those who have followed events more closely will know that Libya has a strong record of opposing terrorism.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

On Monday, Aujali wore a pre-Gaddafi Libyan flag on his lapel and carried a rather different set of talking points to the American Enterprise Institute, where he sat next to his new ally, Bush Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz. “It is a terrorist regime,” Aujali said of Gaddafi. “From the history of Gaddafi since ’69, you know how much the Americans are the first to suffer from Gaddafi, from La Belle [the Berlin nightclub bombed], UTA [the French airliner bombed], from Pan Am. If he stays behind, believe me, you will see more than you have ever seen.”

When Gaddafi ran afoul of world opinion in February, Aujali resigned as ambassador and positioned himself as the envoy of the opposition. His sudden change of opinion about Gaddafi raises the obvious question of why he served the regime for four decades. Aujali argued that he secretly opposed the regime all along, though he served it without complaint and operated as one of its most prominent mouthpieces. He had hoped that Gaddafi would “turn a little bit to the people,” he said, but “I don’t think I achieved my goals.”

Another explanation would be that Aujali decided, with U.S. bombs about to fall on Libya, that his future will be brighter if he is not seen as Gaddafi’s representative in Washington. But Wolfowitz, Aujali’s host at AEI, seemed to embrace the benign account. “As far as I’m concerned he is still the ambassador of Libya, the real Libya,” he said.

Of course, Wolfowitz and his colleagues greeted Ahmed Chalabi, Curveball and the Iraqi opposition with similar credulity, thereby overestimating the strength of the resistance to Saddam Hussein. It is less than certain that appearing with Wolfowitz will help Aujali make his case that the Libyan opposition should be recognized and armed.

Aujali is in a tough spot, as are other Washington ambassadors from suddenly upended regimes in the region. The Egyptian ambassador and the Tunisian ambassador both deftly kept their jobs through revolutions. But Aujali went further, and he is campaigning – in the pages of The Post, at the National Press Club and at AEI -- for the demise of his former colleagues.

To that end, he assured the AEI audience that extremists and Islamists will never control the opposition in Libya (“there is no way!”), and that while there are “some al-Qaeda” in Libya, “they are not part of the uprising.”

But, given his record, can Aujali be believed?

In 2009, he argued that “we have been one of the West’s key partners in . . . interdicting extremists on their way to Iraq to attack U.S. forces.” But at AEI on Monday, he said Gaddafi “wanted to make a Saddam Hussein statue in Libya,” adding that Gaddafi allowed Libyans to go to Iraq to fight Americans. “If he didn’t want these people to go, he could stop them,” Aujali said.

Two years ago, Aujali wrote to the Washington Times that Libya’s government “is manifested in popular representation and direct democracy” and that, “In Libya, the people rule.” At AEI he said: “During the last 40 years there was no way for the people to participate in the government.”

In an April 2009 letter to the New York Times, he said that “human rights are an issue that we in Libya are working hard to improve,” reminding Americans of their own “travesties of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.” At AEI, he drew a parallel between suffering under Gaddafi and Adolf Hitler, suggesting that Germany’s support for the Libyan people was based on shared experience.

Before the bombs fell, Aujali frequently defended Gaddafi’s honor. “Unlike the West, our Islamic and Arabic traditions prohibit us from insulting our leaders,” he said once. At AEI, Aujali accused Gaddafi of “blackmail” and said he “is involved in terrorist action from east to west and north to south.”

“For more than 41 years,” Aujali said, “unfortunately there is nothing for us to be proud about for what happened to Libya during this time under Gaddafi.”

That’s true. But does he believe it himself?

danamilbank@washpost.com