By ROGER COHEN
BENGHAZI, LIBYA — Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is a vain man. Like the other Arab dinosaurs he has his dyed hair, his designer shades, his spoiled children and his compound full of sycophants. He doesn’t want, one day, to be dragged from a rat hole like Saddam Hussein or hauled from a bunker like the Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo.
So what’s his calculation? Does he have one at all? Here in liberated eastern Libya, where the tricolor Qaddafi banished now flies over hundreds of miles of Mediterranean coastline, I had dinner with an official who’s met with the colonel several times and described him as coherent and articulate. Qaddafi is not mad.
But never underestimate the human capacity for delusion. Here’s a despot who’s managed at various times to pocket America and Europe with après-moi-le-déluge talk of the need for his rule, bought off several smaller African states, cocooned himself for more than four decades with fawning acolytes, murdered with impunity, sired with abandon, enriched himself beyond measure and — like any self-respecting modern tyrant — doled out the cell phone companies to his kids. Through all this he’s survived.
Qaddafi might have maneuvered himself into a gilded overseer’s role and gifted power to his bespectacled son Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the nice, educated boy who lost it when he realized — The horror! The horror! — that he might have to give up all his toys.
There was a problem: years of talk of Western-inspired constitutional reform ran up against an addiction. Power, the Sicilians say, is better than sex. The tyrant couldn’t face detox. Sibling rivalries played havoc. All the boys wanted to be like Dad and have not a lot but everything. And now it’s too late.
Qaddafi and Seif took the hideous option, killing their people along the Mediterranean shore. Misurata is their shame. Their imaginings of survival have become exercises in hubris.
Another country is slowly taking form in the east. An official greeted me at the Egyptian-Libyan border with a terse assessment: “Qaddafi is a donkey.” Passports now get stamped by the provisional authorities. The tricolor is everywhere. So are the slogans daubed on walls calling for a united Libya with Tripoli as capital.
Yes, the country’s current split reflects old tribal division, the Tripolitania of the west and Cyrenaica of the east. No, a breakup cannot be imagined, the east-west web of relationships and loyalties and family ties is dense. Libya is not Yugoslavia. The lawyer-leaders of an uprising that rose in fury at a lawyer’s detention and takes the courthouse as its symbol believe that the rule of law can come to all of Libya and its wealth be distributed among more than a favored coterie.
It’s a long drive to Benghazi from the border, desert giving way with abruptness to the lushness of the coast. Arms, mainly antitank weapons from Qatar, come in another way, through Benghazi airport. Libya’s rebels, outgunned, need weapons. They also need organization.
Right now, three squabbling generals jostle for control. The Brits, holed up in a Benghazi hotel compound with one of the generals, are trying to help with that. The United States is offering nonlethal stuff worth millions of dollars: body armor, canteens, uniforms, wire cages for sandbags that can be used to make walls.
The war is being fought on three fronts: along the coast between Ajdabiya and the Qaddafi tribal stronghold of Sirte; in besieged Misurata; and in the western mountains near the Tunisian border. The Benghazi army, engaged on the first of these fronts, has perhaps 1,500 men in uniform, another 1,000 or so in training and a few thousand of the guys with bandannas and guns and Toyota pickups who call themselves the February 17 Brigade — after the date of the revolution in Benghazi. These irregulars have enthusiasm in abundance but no military organization whatsoever.
This embryonic force is not going to defeat Qaddafi in the foreseeable future. Nor can it, alone, apply enough pressure on him for his entourage to see the writing on the wall and act accordingly. That burden falls to NATO. But NATO hesitated as President Obama and America drew back. It is now trying to correct that lapse by escalating operations to take out supply and communications lines.
With civilians dying daily in Misurata, the push is now for the broadest possible interpretation of the United Nations Security Council resolution allowing “all necessary means” for the protection of the Libyan people and for, in the words of one person involved, “getting this over as quickly as possible.” The talk here is of weeks rather than months.
I cannot see a road back for Qaddafi whatever the current stalemate. What “victory” can he imagine now, despised by most of his people, isolated in the awakening Arab world? The pressure will mount. Those he suppressed in Tripoli will be emboldened again.
His calculation at this point is little more than desperation, the last twist of his hubris. Zimbabwe is better than Saddam’s rat hole or Gbagbo’s bunker — and the best option he can salvage now.
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