It was meant to be a day of global reconciliation, when the new leader of the free world put all the rancour of the past eight years behind him and heralded an era of unity. And so it might have been were it not for a short man, swathed in saffron robes and a black felt hat waving his arms around and shouting: “Terrorism!” Muammar Qaddafi — for it was he — grabbed his 15 minutes of fame at the UN building in New York yesterday (Sept. 23) and ran with it. He ran with it so hard he stretched it to an hour and 40 minutes, six times longer than his allotted slot, to the dismay of UN organisers.
On his first visit to the U.S., and in his maiden address to the UN general assembly, Col. Qaddafi fully lived up to his reputation for eccentricity, bloody-mindedness and extreme verbiage.
He tore up a copy of the UN charter in front of startled delegates, accused the security council of being an al-Qaida like terrorist body, called for George Bush and Tony Blair to be put on trial for the Iraq war, demanded $7.7 trillion in compensation for the ravages of colonialism on Africa, and wondered whether swine flu was a biological weapon created in a military laboratory. At one point, he even demanded to know who was behind the killing of JFK. All in all, a pretty ordinary 100 minutes in the life of the colonel.
To be fair, this was a man suffering from severe sleep deprivation. The U.S. state department, New York city council and Donald Trump had prevented him from laying his weary head in an air-conditioned tent in New Jersey, Central Park and Bedford respectively, and the resulting strain was evident.
“I woke up at 4am, before dawn!” Col. Qaddafi lamented about an hour into his speech, adding for the benefit of the jetlagged diplomats seated stony-faced in front of him: “You should be asleep! You’re all tired after a sleepless night!” Col. Qaddafi certainly knows how to woo a crowd, particularly at important junctures such as this. This was after all his big chance to cement Libya’s re-entry into the bosom of the international community after 20 years in the wilderness.
The technique he chose to do so — cunningly — was to blatantly insult his audience. The representatives of the 192 nations assembled in the assembly hall were no better, he told them, than orators at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner. “You make your speech and then you disappear. That’s all you are right now.” He then turned his wrath on to America, Britain, France, Russia and China — the permanent members of the security council, or “terror council” as he renamed it. Their veto was tantamount to terrorism. “This is terrorism, like the terrorism of al-Qaida. Terrorism is not just al-Qaida, it takes many forms.” In case the point was lost on anyone, he tore up his copy of the UN rule book.
Having thus abused and alienated 99.99 per cent of the world’s top diplomats, he suddenly changed tack, heaping praise and devotion on the one man he appears to respect. “Now the black man doesn’t have to sit in the back of the bus, the American people made him president and we are proud of that. We would be happy if Obama stayed president of America forever.” Poor Barack Obama. Having Col. Qaddafi applaud his stance towards the world must have been as pleasing as being congratulated on his domestic policy by the leader of the birthers, who insist Mr. Obama was not born in America.
In an example of exquisite stage management in which the UN appears to specialise, Col. Qaddafi was scheduled to speak immediately after Mr. Obama’s first historic address to the general assembly.
If Col. Qaddafi upstaged everybody inside the austere UN assembly hall, outside the building the PR message would have been a little less to his liking.
Relatives of the victims of Pan Am 103 gathered in New York’s First Avenue bearing posters saying “Murderer” and venting their anger about the hero’s welcome given to the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi last month.
That aside, the self-proclaimed king of kings, figurehead of a thousand African kingdoms, must have been chuffed by how his morning had turned out. Now, where to pitch that tent?