"Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child."
Rudyard Kipling 1899
Watching rebel gunmen rampage through Col. Muammar Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound -- once Tripoli's Forbidden City of Tripoli -- was a strange experience for me.
I spent an evening there with Gaddafi in 1987, a year after it was bombed by US warplanes.
Libya's "Brother Leader" talked about the Mideast, Palestine, North Africa. He led me by the hand through his ruined private quarters, still reeking of fire and smoke, and showed me the bed in which an American 1,000 kilo laser-guided bomb killed his two-year old adopted daughter.
We sat in his gaily colored Bedouin tent, talking into the night. He opened up to me about his love for fancy dress and beamed happily when I told him, tongue in cheek, how attractive he was to western women.
Fast forward to August, 2011. CIA teams, British SAS and SBC special forces, and French Foreign Legionnaires and Marine Commandos are searching for Muammar Gaddafi.
Western led Libyan forces are closing in on Gaddafi's birthplace, Sirte. There are growing rumors Gaddafi and his family fled last week to Algeria, whose brutal, western-backed military regime has long been allied to the Libyan leader,
Few will miss him. Gaddafi was a blight on Libya and an embarrassment to the Arabs.
But were I western intelligence, the man I would want in my interrogation cells is Gadaffi's elusive brother-in-law, Abdullah Senoussi, the longtime head of Libyan intelligence and alter ego of Gaddafi.
While awaiting my interview with Gaddafi, I was awakened from sleep in my hotel one night at 10:30 by pounding on the door. My heart went into overdrive. I was certain I was being arrested by the secret police. One of them had accused me earlier in the day of being a CIA agent.
I was hustled off in a car. Instead of prison, I was taken to a well-appointed villa, ushered into a salon, and introduced to a "Mr. Senoussi," who told me he was Libya's health minister and invited to dine with him desert-style off a large copper tray on the floor.
Senoussi, whom I immediately identified as Libya's spy chief and one of the key "people of the tent" surrounding Gaddafi, chatted away with me about the Mideast, Africa, and my life. He was handsome, elegant, well-educated and very charming.
Senoussi, who hails from Libya's royal family, was also indicted for mounting an assassination attempt against Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in 2003.
In 1994, French magistrates indicted Senoussi for masterminding the 1989 bombing of a UTA airliner over Niger. He was tried and convicted in absentia.
It seems certain agents of France's DGSE intelligence agency, a notoriously rough outfit, are hunting down Senoussi -- if he is unwise enough to remain in Libya.
The files of Libya's intelligence and security agencies will be a primary target for western special forces and intelligence agents. Seizing them is vital since they show the deep level of western cooperation with the now demonized Gaddafi. Like another former US ally, Saddam Hussein, he must be silenced.
Meanwhile, Libya is literally turning into a gold rush as the big western oil firms pile into Libya and pay court to the new government in Tripoli, the National Transitional Council. Police units and troops from Britain, France and Italy may soon follow -- all, naturally, as part of the west's new "humanitarian intervention" strategy that has replaced "counter-terrorism."
Libya is in semi-chaos and its economy devastated by six months of conflict. The food distribution system has broken down. Thousands of heavily armed "rambos" make their own law. There are barely any state institutions aside from the national oil company and central bank. The police have evaporated.
As a modest historian, I am always delighted when history draws striking parallels. We now see the fascinating spectacle of those old colonial powers, Britain, France, and Italy, starting to move back into their former overseas possessions while the United States looks on approvingly.
Britain ruled Libya until a young colonel named Muammar Gaddafi overthrew the doddering old British puppet, King Idris. The US lost one of its largest bombers bases at Libya's Wheelus Field. Neither nation was to forgive Gaddafi.
Imperial Britain had seized Libya from Italy's fascist regime in 1943. Italy colonized Libya after tearing it away from the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Italy used concentration camps and poison gas to terrorize Libyans into submission.
France, whose colonial empire included neighboring Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Chad, and Niger, long competed with Italy and Spain for regional domination. Mussolini's Fascist regime pressed claims to Tunisia, Corsica, Nice and Cannes.
An obscure colonial border dispute over Chad's Aouzou Strip dating from the 1920's between France and Italy led to a nasty little Franco-Libyan border war there in 1987.
French Foreign Legionnaires in jeeps, disguised as Chadian nomads, drove the wretched Libyan army from Aouzou in what became known as the "Toyota War." Disguised French special forces and Legionnaires, as well as Britain's SAS, just used the same theatrical tactics in Libya. The real fighting against Gadaffi's troops was done by NATO air, ground and naval forces. All those mobs of gun-waving Libyans were merely extras.
The big question now is which foreign power will dominate Libya. The United States, which has waged this little war from well offstage? Italy, which gets most of its oil from Libya? France, where President Sarkozy has been hinting at a Mediterranean union -- bien sûr, under French tutelage?
Oil is a potent aphrodisiac. Libya has vast reserves of premium, low-sulphur oil and gas, and a hundred-year supply of ancient artesian water. Energy-rich Libya will become an important market for European consumer products and industrial exports, as well as a huge major supplier of investment funds from its estimated $50 billion worth of annual oil exports.
There are more prizes to be had: Libya's gold reserves, estimated at $4-5 billion; and its nearly $100 billion of foreign deposits and investments.
One thing is increasingly clear: oil and gas are simply too important to be left in the hands of Arabs, Iranians and Central Asians.
Gaddafi warned a few months ago that if he was overthrown, the west would grab Libya's oil.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011