Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi may be fighting desperately in his characteristically unusual way to stem a popular uprising that threatens his 42-year reign, but dozens of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables show that in dealings with the eccentric strongman, U.S. officials have learned one thing clearly: Do not mistake personal quirks for weakness.
From a fear of the upper floors of buildings to his flair for flamenco dancing and horse racing, U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz said of Gadhafi in one 2009 cable, "While it is tempting to dismiss his many eccentricities as signs of instability, [Gadhafi] is a complicated individual who has managed to stay in power for nearly forty years through a skillful balancing of interests and realpolitik methods."
That cable, which was posted along with the others on the website Wikileaks, allows a rare glimpse into Gadhafi's abnormal proclivities ahead of his 2009 U.N. appearance in New York. In the cable, Cretz describes Gadhafi as having a fear of flying over water, a near obsession with those closest to him, including his "voluptuous blond" Ukrainian nurse, and a refusal to climb more than 35 steps at a time. The cable notes that Gadhafi does not like to fly more than eight hours at a time and plans overnight layovers to accommodate his rest.
The cable also discussed his plans to erect a massive Bedouin tent during his visit to New York -- the one that was temporarily erected on property owned by Donald Trump.
"Moammar Gadhafi has been described as both mercurial and eccentric, and our recent first-hand experience with him and his office... demonstrated the truth of both characterizations," said Cretz who was called back to Washington after the cable's publication by Wikileaks.
From Nuclear Ambitions to Shady Weapons Deals
Descriptions of personal foibles, however, are mixed with allegations of cold-blooded backroom finagling that would make any despot proud. Long before he used a foreign mercenary army and his own air force to allegedly kill and injure hundreds of protestors, the leaked cables describe years of savvy political strong-arming that includes secret arms deals, regional power grabs, international blackmail and corruption.
One series of cables describe Libya's nuclear disarmament -- announced in Dec. 2003 and hailed as a victory for then-President George Bush -- as a grueling process in which Libyan officials argued six years after the agreement that they had not been properly "rewarded" by the U.S. government, while U.S. officials claimed Libya was intentionally delaying the dismantling program.
Since the agreement, the U.S. has taken Libya off a list of states that sponsor terror and spent millions in aid to Libya "focused on bolstering Libya's commitments to renouncing weapons of mass destruction," according to the State Department and USAID.
Other cables describe arms deals with contacts in China, Romania and the U.K. that indicate Ghadafi wanted to buy far more weapons than were needed by the Libyan military, either because of regional ambitions or a foreseen need for more armed men within his own borders. In August of 2008, a cable sent from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli alerted the State Department offices in Washington, D.C., that Libya had reportedly ordered 130,000 Kalashnikov rifles from a British arms company that acted "as an intermediary" for an unnamed Ukrainian manufacturer.
The problem, the cable said, was that current estimates put Libya's entire number of ground-force soldiers around 60,000, less than half the number of rifles the country had ordered.
"Attempts to solicit further information... have raised more questions than they answered," the cable said. One British official believed Gadhafi's government intended to turn around and sell the guns to "armed rebel factions... in the Chad/Sudan conflict," according to the cable. At the time, U.N. officials said up to 300,000 people had been killed by warring factions in Sudan alone.
Because of that concern, a later cable reported that the British stopped the deal after a month-long investigation. In the same cable, however, a Libyan businessman told a U.S. official he had signed a deal with a Romanian company to import 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. The businessman was "open about the contract, but avoided the question as to whether the rifles were to be used in Libya or re-exported to another destination."
Another cable reported that in February 2007, Italian police arrested arms dealers who were allegedly brokering an agreement between Libya and Chinese manufacturers for 500,000 automatic rifles, the first half of a million-rifle deal.
Accused of Blackmail, 'Pervasive' Corruption
In 2008, Gadhafi's government was accused of using outright blackmail and extortion to force visa approval for "well-connected" Libyans from two European countries, another cable said.
In one case, 12 unnamed Libyans were requesting visas from Greece, but not because they wanted to visit there, the cable said, but because "Greece has not yet incorporated biometric requirements into its visa application procedure." When Greece refused, officials from the Libyan government informed their Greek counterparts Libya would not be clearing shipments of diplomatic goods through customs until the visa matter was resolved.
In a similar case, a Swiss official told the U.S. the Libyans had refused to register one of their embassy employees in Libya until the country approved of a tourist visa for a Libyan applicant who had been denied, the cable said.
"The willingness of the [Government of Libya] to extort other diplomatic missions to issue visas to prominent but unqualified Libyans reflects the extent to which politically-connected individuals are able to manipulate public institutions for their own benefit," a U.S. official said in the cable. "In an opaque regime in which lines of authority are deliberately blurred to obscure power structures and mitigate accountability, corruption is pervasive."