Events in Libya are moving very fast, and their outcome remains uncertain. Leader" Muammar Gaddafi is hunkered down in Tripoli, defended by loyal army units from his tribe and mercenaries from black Africa. But opposition forces appear to be closing in on Tripoli as the threat of all-out civil war in Libya grows.
Watching Col. Muammar Gaddafi deliver a bombastic, defiant speech last week from the ruins of Tripoli's Bab al-Azizia barracks brought me back to 1987 when Libya's leader led me by the hand through this same wreckage of his former residence.
On 14 April, 1986, U.S. aircraft attacked Libya after a Berlin disco frequented by U.S. soldiers was bombed. U.S. President Ronald Reagan blamed Libya and denounced Gaddafi as the "mad dog of the Middle East."
But a defector from Israel's Mossad later claimed the U.S. had been duped by a false flag operation into believing Libya was behind the attack.
A 2,000lb U.S. bomb crashed through the ceiling of Gaddafi's private quarters. He was outside in his trademark tent. But his 2-year-old adopted daughter was killed. Some 87 other civilians and a few French diplomats also died in what was called a "surgical air strike." Americans thought this raid was dandy.
"Why, Mr Eric," a clearly confused Gaddafi plaintively asked me, "why were the Americans trying to kill me?" He really seemed at a loss.
"Because, Leader (he liked to be addressed this way) they think you are funding every kind of anti-western group," I replied. "And they will never forgive you for provoking the rise in Arab oil prices."
In those long ago days, Gaddafi, who considered himself a passionate revolutionary, supported every militant group that asked for Libyan help, including Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, various Palestinian groups fighting Israeli occupation, Basque separatists battling Madrid, the Irish Republican Army and Abu Nidal's killers. To Washington, Gaddafi was the world's arch "terrorist."
I was one of the first western journalists to interview Gaddafi (or Khadaffy as it was then spelled) after the U.S. attempt to assassinate him. I also met the senior members of Gaddafi's regime, including his chief of intelligence who was later accused by France of organizing the bombing of a French UTA airliner over Niger in 1989.
After Gaddafi and I spent the evening talking in his colorful Bedouin tent, I had some fun with him. "We may bomb you, Leader, but we also think you are the best-dressed Arab leader." The dazzlingly vain Gaddafi, dressed in a custom-made silk Italian jump suit and zippered kidskin boots, beamed with pleasure. He asked me where he could get the Ralph Lauren safari jacket I was wearing, adding, "you look very militant, Mr Eric."
I could never get a good fix on Muammar Gaddafi. When he seized power way back in 1969, he was young and very handsome, with movie-star good looks, and an ardent reformist. Gaddafi's hero and father figure was Egypt's charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was expected to become the second Nasser.
Gaddafi was never the same after Nasser's untimely death in 1970. He grew eccentric, then very odd. He styled himself a revolutionary leader, not a head of state. Libya was to be in permanent semi-anarchy, without any real government or institutions. As the craziness spread, oil billions poured in, allowing Gaddafi to romance foreign heads of state and influence Africa. But his fellow Arabs rejected him as a rich but dangerous, mercurial clown.
Watching Italy's PM Silvio Berlusconi, France's President Nicholas Sarkozy and other world leaders squirm with embarrassment walking next to Gaddafi decked out in flamboyant, clownish uniforms straight from an Italian "opera buffo" was always amusing. Everyone mocked Libya's madcap "Leader," but loved his money even more.
However zany and bizarre, Gaddafi was clever as a fox and had more lives than a cat. He survived many attempts on his life mounted by U.S., British, French and Egyptian intelligence.
In 2003, in a brilliant ploy, Gaddafi bought a pile of nuclear junk on the black market, then told Washington he was giving up his nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration fell for this ruse and ended its punishing boycott of Libya, thrilled it could claim a nuclear victory after finding no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Col. Gaddafi bought peace with the western powers by cutting them into Libya's rich oil fields, investing billions in European industry and banking, and joining George Bush's faux "war on terror."
But now that Libya is convulsed by revolution, Gaddafi seems to have used up all his nine lives. His area of control is shrinking fast, though there are many Libyans who still support him -- for the moment.
While Libya burns, there are serious discussions afoot in Washington and Europe about imposing an Iraq-style "no fly zone" in Libya, followed by possibly western military intervention. Libya would be "stabilized," a client regime made up of CIA-organized exiles installed, and Libya's oil fields made safe for western companies. A western invasion and occupation would be decked up as a peacekeeping/humanitarian mission.
Libya would return to pre-Gaddafi days when it was ruled by a British-managed figurehead king, the doddering Ibn Idris. That is, if Libya does not dissolve into tribal and clan warfare, or break up into western and eastern parts.
Italy, Libya's former brutal colonial ruler, and now main oil customer, may be eager to get involved. So, too, Egypt, France, and, of course, the U.S. and Britain. Oil remains the ultimate geopolitical aphrodisiac.
If driven from Tripoli, Gaddafi will take refuge in his tribe's territory, or bolt to Italy or Venezuela. His five spoiled, feuding sons are unlikely to emerge as Libya's new rulers. All dictators seem to have terrible problems with their out-of-control sons.
Gaddafi is a sad example of the maxim about absolute power corrupting absolutely. People like me who relish political theater of the absurd will miss the "Leader;" but most of his people, I suspect, will not.
While Gaddafi prepares for his last stand, the next storm to hit North Africa may come in Algeria and Morocco, two western-supported regimes that are considerably more brutal and repressive than Gaddafi's ramshackle "people's jamuhyria."
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011