There are two notable things about Gaddafi, says Adam Curtis. The first is that he was obsessed with the idea he was a global thinker and the second is that he hated the British establishment. Shunned by the Arab World, Gaddafi decided he would try and liberate Britain instead and in the late eighties gave weaponry to the IRA.
On the other side of the globe the neo-cons– who came to power in the 1980s under the Reagan administration – were pushing the idea that society had become eroded because people weren’t unified behind a simple, powerful myth such as the evil empire: they wanted a mythical enemy and Gaddafi seemed like the obvious choice.
The late Libyan president wasn’t destined to be their bogeyman forever – in fact over a period of 40 years Gaddafi was constantly invented and reinvented by the West to suit their own purposes and avoid confronting the true complexity of the region. Speaking at the BBC Arabic Film Festival, documentary filmmaker Curtis uses the story of this relationship to demonstrate how Britain and America have created an oversimplified and one-dimensional vision of the Arab World and sold it to their people.
In order to strengthen their case that Gaddafi was the enemy, neo-cons circulated the idea that he was part a hit-team of people – along with Carlos the Jackal – who wanted to assassinate Reagan. They used investigative journalist Jack Anderson to “uncover” this hit team and circulate the story.
The relationship between the two parties entered a vicious circle of mutual reinforcement as Gaddafi took the opportunity to vault himself into the centre of the world’s attention. “He added an element of theatre to it,” says Curtis. “He sort of created a pantomime figure for himself.”
In line with this, all terrorism in the Middle East was blamed on him. Despite the fact that a number of spies, intelligence agents and journalists thought Syria was responsible for the Lockerbie terrorist attack in December 1990 the experts switched their opinion and said it was Gaddafi. Sanctions were imposed on Libya and the country was banished as a rogue state.
This battle between good and evil, says Curtis, is where the ideology of the neo-cons meets with adherents to what he calls the white saviour industrial complex – “if we enter the bad man goes and good will prevail,” he says, summarising their philosophy. In this shared line of thinking Gaddafi is the vision of modern evil and as citizens we have a duty to save people from him. But it’s oversimplified, argues Curtis, and it disregards the idea of the complex political system that lies beneath the “evil” leader.
In 2004 everything changed. Tony Blair, who was prime minister of the UK at the time, persuaded the BBC to let him break into the news and say that Gaddafi was giving up his weapons of mass destruction, even though he “didn’t really have any,” says Curtis. Blair went to meet Gaddafi and British friendship was traded for lucrative oil deals. As part of this deal, the MI6 aided in the rendition of Gaddafi dissidents Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami Al-Saadi to Libya where they were imprisoned and tortured.
“Suddenly he became a good figure; he was a goodie,” says Curtis. One PR firm was paid £3 billion to turn Gaddafi into a world thinker.
The final twist came in 2011 with the Arab Spring when the narrative reverted to that of the eighties. As the West prepared to intervene in Libya, Gaddafi was suddenly bad again, an image then British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all helped push. It was “expedient” to buy into this narrative says Curtis.
We helped kill Gaddafi. I think this was a ruthless act.
As the power of the establishment waned they wanted to prove they still had power, offers Curtis as an explanation. It was the degraded end of that idea of being a saviour and keeping that sense of moral authority going. When they had an empire they had an end in view but in Libya they are lost: “There’s no sense of future with this establishment and he [Gaddafi] brings that into focus.”
Whilst the establishment are lost, a number of countries in the Middle East are falling apart. With this in mind a lot of big issues in the Middle East will have to be confronted, such as how do you put a country back together again and what happens next? Cynics and pragmatists think we need a strong man, says Curtis, but at the same time the shift back to the strong man suggests we have no answers.
What is clear though is that Gaddafi’s story holds up a mirror to Western establishment hypocrisy: “He holds up an exaggerated figure to show you as a society what you created.”