TRIPOLI—Coming back from an interview in Libya's capital one evening, I found myself stuck in a monster traffic jam in Green Square, the capital's vast open meeting point. Suddenly, police outriders came roaring up the avenue, which runs along the Mediterranean, their flashing lights signaling a motorcade. My driver slipped into an old Tripoli habit: counting the cars in the convoy to identify the VIP. "Leader?" he wondered—the only title by which Muammar Qaddafi is known in Libya. "If 50 cars, Leader. Less than 50, not Leader." Like most people in Tripoli, my driver had many theories about the leader: Leader has made a deal with America because he needs Big Oil money; Leader is sick, but no one knows from what; Leader is sick of being Leader and wants to retire in a few years, tops. "Leader is finished," is the version I heard most often.
I decided to test my driver's theories by trying to catch Qaddafi in action, 35 years after the 27-year-old officer led a military coup and toppled the Libyan monarchy. The first time I saw him, Qaddafi was sitting under a huge desert tent with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had taken the short flight down from Rome in order to open a giant $2 billion Italian gas plant on Libya's coast. Tout Tripoli was there. Scores of diplomats from across Europe and Africa and dozens of oil executives had waited for hours inside a meeting hall about a quarter-mile away until word filtered down that the leader would appear in the tent instead. Buses were hurriedly summoned to whisk the now-hungry guests to a parking lot in front of the gas plant, where the tent, with its Bedouin-patterned cotton covering, had been erected.
Qaddafi and Berlusconi finally appeared, sitting in awkward silence as the local mayor and officials from Italy's ENI oil company addressed the crowd. Finally, Qaddafi rose, and a crowd of Libyan plant workers elbowed their way toward the podium chanting: "Leader! Leader!" Wearing his trademark sunglasses and African robes, Qaddafi nodded briefly to them, and then moved quickly to the topic at hand: 60-year-old colonial history.
"The Libyans helped liberate Italy from fascism," Qaddafi told Berlusconi. The Italian premier looked on glumly from under the tent. The plant workers cheered. "The Italians don't like to remember this—the black side of the story," Qaddafi said. "But the Libyans suffered as much as the Italians from fascism." When Qaddafi finished, a celebratory flame was fired into the air from the gas plant behind. A girl of about 6, dressed in traditional tribal dress and three-inch silver platform shoes, tottered up and handed Qaddafi a huge bouquet of roses. And then the leader was gone.
It is hard to imagine Libya without Qaddafi, an international man of mystery whose mix of political repression and anti-Western defiance, spiced up with a dash of African exoticism, made him an irresistibly iconic figure. In South Africa, where I grew up, Qaddafi's Green Book was banned under apartheid, placing it on equal footing with Das Kapital and the lyrics of "The Internationale." Qaddafi's outsized personality put Libya on the map, defining his country for the world, much as Yasser Arafat did for the Palestinians. The two men were, in fact, oddly intertwined. Arafat and Qaddafi took power within months of each other in 1969, one of a mere movement, the PLO, the other of a stretch of desert whose mammoth oil reserves were barely imaginable at the time. Qaddafi carved out his place in the region partly by becoming one of Arafat's loudest supporters, including of his terrorist ventures.
No one could have known how radically different the two men's fates would be. Today, Arafat lies buried in a bombed-out compound, exiled from Jerusalem. And Qaddafi? These days the leader holds court with heads of state and weighs the entreaties of competing U.S. oil companies.
More than two decades after President Reagan slapped an embargo against Qaddafi, Americans are back in full force, thanks to the leader's 2003 decision to abandon his quest for biological and chemical weapons and his earlier decision to extradite the two Libyan men suspected of the 1988 PanAm bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, one of whom was later convicted. Tripoli's swank $300-a-night Corinthia Hotel—built by savvy Maltese developers last year—is booked solid, and on many days the lobby resembles a U.S. corporate convention. One floor serves as temporary digs for the U.S. interest section, the precursor to a real embassy. It's no wonder that President Bush now touts Qaddafi as his one tangible post-9/11 success. "Look at Libya," Bush boasted to John Kerry back in October, during the first presidential debate, citing Qaddafi's decision to end his WMD program. "Libya understood that America and others will enforce doctrine."
What Qaddafi "understood" isn't at all clear, however. The leader's campaign against militant Islam began years before 9/11, when he became jittery about the fundamentalists filtering into Libya from neighboring Sudan. Wandering around Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, recently, I was directed to a wall display, where the public relations officer pointed out a framed copy of the first international arrest warrant issued for Osama Bin Laden, back in 1998. "Who requested it?" I asked. "Libya," he answered. When I flew from Tripoli to the giant oil fields in the Sahara desert, workers told me they have their beards closely shaved before they take weekend trips to the capital. "We'll be arrested immediately if we look like we're extremists," said one.
Rather than being won over by Bush's threat of enforcing doctrine, it seems more likely that Qaddafi finally got the advice that had seemed obvious all along: Go for the money. That counsel came largely from his 32-year-old son Seif Al-Islam, who is now a doctoral student at the London School of Economics and who's widely regarded as Qaddafi's political heir (an outcome longed for in the West). When I met Seif in Tripoli, I asked whether his father had really joined Bush's war on terror. It was one of the few moments in which the cool, hip son snapped in anger. "If you're talking about these global networks, we are far away from these. They have their cells in America and Europe. They are targeting the West," he said in rapid-fire sentences. "We are away from the war. We shouldn't be part of that war." Earlier, Libyan Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem had told me that the government finally saw its WMD program was a hugely expensive waste of time "that didn't even necessarily make us safer!"
A Western consultant who has met Qaddafi numerous times says the leader made a few tentative approaches to the United States while Bill Clinton was president, trying to see if he could mend fences. "He got nowhere. They wouldn't even talk to him," said the consultant. Qaddafi might at last have found a kindred spirit in the White House. "He's just like George Bush," says the consultant. "He's a conviction politician. Sometimes he's fanatical, but he really believes what he believes." What that is these days is not always clear, and the big question is whether Qaddafi can keep his cherished Green Revolution alive while oil men from ConocoPhillips rent suites of offices in downtown Tripoli and his government sits on hard-cash reserves of about $20 billion.