15 JULY 2009


When the first provisional list of speakers for the forthcoming General Assembly Session came out, it listed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi immediately after the President of the United States. While the host country traditionally takes the second spot, after an equally traditional warm-up appearance by Brazil, a more usual listing was for a "neutral" head of state like President of South Africa, the King of Morocco or the Prime Minister of Italy to follow. Europeans like France, U.K and Russia focused on the second day, to have their own media time and avert an unwinnable contest with the host country's president in New York's limelight. The only unusual listing was when Secretary General Annan, encouraged by Secretary of State Albright, was working on a U.S./Iranian rapprochement. They arranged for a last-minute shift for Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to take the podium a few speakers behind the U.S. President and for President Clinton to hang around long enough to listen -- and politely applaud the speech. That was done with full U.S. encouragement -- even gratitude to the Secretary General and his wily Chef de Cabinet who showed his role by moving around General Assembly key seats immediately before the official opening.

But now Qaddafi wants to speak right after the U.S. President, without advance U.S. consent, indeed with concern amongst some apprehensive senior Secretariat officials and reserved silence by the U.S. Mission in New York. Perhaps some are nervous about what the unpredictable Lybian leader, a compulsive showman, may spring on his captive audience as he is led to the podium or while awaiting his turn in the ante-chamber behind the podium, through which the previous speaker must also pass. Some fear that particularly with his new role as "King of Africa" in the new African Union, he may look at the first African American President, born of a Kenyan father, as one of his own. Others counter that Qaddafi may act very weird, but he is not politically suicidal. He had just been rehabilitated by the U.S. after fulfilling specific conditions, with strict adherence.

Actually, for Qaddafi, it is only normal for him to seek the spotlight. To begin with, the General Assembly Session will be presided over by his long-term loyal citizen, Ambassador Ali Triki, who among other posts was Ambassador to U.N. in New York. The only curious question is: how would the leader open his address when in Arabic "Mr. President" is actually: "My Master President." Very unlikely. Another format will certainly be devised. Furthermore, the Lybian leader is emboldened by also being a member of the Security Council, with full U.S. agreement. Plus, during the most recent African summit, some senior officials literally knelt as his feet. As to the U.S., the deal had been worked out years ago by Prince Bandar, packaged by Kofi Annan, and sealed by President George W. Bush. Outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was his enthusiastic guest. American and European leaders like Berlesconi and Sarkozy are clamoring to meet him. The most outspoken proponent of "get tough" approach, David Welsh of renowned "Welsh Club" on Lebanon, is now an amenable consultant for the more amenable Bechtel Contractors. Western businesses are recruiting middlemen who could provide access to Tripoli and Benghazi.

Not only does Qaddafi, with his entourage of female bodyguards, expect to be the most welcome speaker across First Avenue next September, he may even seek to erect a tent at the U.N. Garden -- on the East River. We were told that a negative response was politely sent about the tent, but could that be a final answer? And why not land there by helicopter? It's international territory. And if Triki, who knows very well his temperamental chief, says yes, who would contest him in the current leadership of the U.N. Secretariat -- unless emboldened by Washington or Beijing.

In a confused world with shifting alliances, shady interests, and a docile U.N. leadership, a Qaddafi tent would reflect a sign of current times and, most likely, we will all be part of it.