Call him Mr. Lucky. Just as major powers were about to go put the kibosh on embattled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, along came Japan's awful tsunami, which washed Libya off the front pages.
Chances of a nuclear and financial meltdown in Japan gripped world capitals and overshadowed Libya's civil strife.
This happened as the normally do-nothing Arab League had bestirred itself to pass a resolution calling for the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya - a euphemism for war. Most of the Arab states hate Gaddafi and would love to see him strung up. For decades, Libya's "leader" has been calling them American and Israeli stooges, cowards, and thieves.
Gadaffi's choicest barbs were reserved for the Saudi royal family, whom he scathingly described as "old women in robes." Ouch! And this from a zany despot who loves to wear comic opera military uniforms made by Italian tailors.
But note, the Arab League did not propose action itself. It merely kicked the Libyan problem over to the UN Security Council, which may not take decisive action due to Chinese and Russian opposition.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, who would have had a lot of fun with all the righteous hysteria over Libya, reports of Gadaffi's demise are premature.
It seems Libya's Muammar Gaddafi is not a goner, at least not this week. His military and mercenaries have counter-attacked and are driving east towards the center of rebellion, Benghazi.
There has not been all that much fighting, in spite of overheated reports by the media, thanks to the military ineptitude of both Gaddafi's forces and the Benghazi-based rebels who are little more than an armed mob making warlike gestures for TV cameras.
Real, seasoned war correspondents seem to have vanished from the media, replaced by amateurs who can't tell a tank from an armored personnel carrier.
If the opposition starts making gains again, then suspect that foreign special forces are involved. I've reported for some weeks that British SAS forces were secretly in Libya. A bunch were recently rounded up and deported.
I've seen Libya's army at war before. In the late 198's, Libya and Chad, backed by its neocolonial master France, fought a little war over the disputed Aouzou Strip, which was believed to have rich uranium deposits.
Aouzou was sort of ceded by France, which then ruled neighboring Chad, to Italy, which then ruled Libya. Italy was given Aouzou by the British and French as one of the prizes it received after World War I for joining the Allied side. But after uranium was discovered in the 1970's, the French decided they should never have ceded Aouzou to Italy and reneged on the deal, leaving the desert strip in limbo.
In what was called the "Toyota War," (both sides used the splendid Toyota Land Cruiser), Libya's Army proved laughably incompetent. French Foreign Legionnaires disguised as Chadian tribesmen quickly routed the Libyans.
I ran into some of these tough Legionnaires in Alsace and they told me delightful tales of their "Beau Geste"-type colonial operations in Chad and Aouzou. On their muscled arms was tattooed, "marcher ou crever" (march or die).
This time around, Gaddafi's military and mercenaries have the rag-tag anti-Gaddafi forces on the defensive. To the horror of the US, Britain, Canada, and France, all of whom are calling for Gaddafi's head, Libya's eccentric leader appears to be winning.
I recently wrote that Gadaffi had used up all his nine lives. It looks like I, a veteran Gaddafi-watcher, was wrong. As Washington and NATO stumble, dither, and look plain silly over Libya, the awful realization is growing: what if Gaddafi survives and continues to rule Libya? Will he have the last laugh?
France's neoconservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose popularity is almost as low as Gaddafi's, just recognized the Benghazi-based Libyan opposition and calls for air strikes against Libya. This after France was revealed to have offered riot police to Tunisia's embattled dictator. French prime minister Francois Fillon vacationed in Egypt, with travel goodies supplied by former president-dictator Husni Mubarak.
I'm surprised Gaddafi did not riposte by recognizing the Corsican Liberation Movement on the restive French-ruled island, or endorse a Basque state in southwestern France. Touché! He could have declared an embargo on French perfume, for which Libya is significant market.
In a huge embarrassment for President Barack Obama, who has been demanding Gaddafi resign, the gutsy new US national intelligence director, Gen. James Clapper, told Congress that Gaddafi's forces were winning. Fortunately, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the brakes, at least for now, on Republican hawks and the-only-good-Arab-is-a-dead-Arab neocons who were urging the US impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
There will also be many red faces in Europe. Libya is a major oil supplier. If Gaddafi survives and re-consolidates his rule, Europe will have to continue buying oil from him. Germany's Angela Merkel and her pal Sarko will look very foolish.
That means the leaders of France, Germany, and Britain, who have been calling for the overthrow of Gaddafi, may have to make nice to him again, and even, horror of horrors, go to Tripoli and be filmed holding hands with the smirking Libyan dictator, decked out in one of his Marx brothers military outfits. Revenge, Libyan-style, will be oh so sweet.
The British are very good at reversing course. "Oh, it was all a terrible misunderstanding. Fault of those Americans, don't you know."
Sarkozy could patch up relations by sending his gorgeous Carla Bruni to visit Gaddafi, who has an eye for the ladies.
The Americans, not so adept at U-turns, will continue to huff and puff at Gaddafi until the New York Times runs a lead article about how poor, misunderstood Gadaffi is really secretly a friend of Israel. (If you think this is crazy, Gaddafi told me he admired Israel and wanted to invite all of Libya's former Jewish residents to come home.)
All this reminds me of a wonderful story told me by the late Count Alexandre de Marenches, the long-time head of France's hard-fisted foreign intelligence service, SDECE. (Today, after big scandals, it's called DGSE).
During the Aouzou conflict, French President Francois Mitterand, highly annoyed at Gaddafi, ordered Marenche's SDECE to assassinate the Libyan leader. The count related to me how his agents managed the feat of secreting a pressure-fused bomb aboard Gaddafi's private jet, set to explode at 7,000 meters. Luckily for Gaddafi, he did not use his jet in that period.
But after Libya gave up Aouzou and Franco-Libyan relations improved, Mitterand ordered SDECE to remove the bomb. That, said Marenches, was ten times harder than getting it aboard. But SDECE did manage to remove the bomb, and Libyan oil and cash flowed to France.
But in 1989, Libya's intelligence chief, with whom I had dined in Tripoli, allegedly ordered the bombing of a French UTA airliner over Niger, killing 170. Gaddafi denied any knowledge of this crime or of the downing of a PanAm airliner over Scotland. Libya was subjected to crushing western sanctions.
In 2008, Gadaffi bought his way out of trouble by forking out $1.5 billion to the US citizens and other claimants for the UTA and Pan Am Lockerbie aircraft - but without admitting Libya's guilt.
President George W. Bush ordered all sanctions on Libya lifted. Washington even declared Gaddafi a valued ally in the so-called war on terror.
Money lasts far longer than moral outrage. This time, the wily Libyan colonel has a reported $50 billion in his war chest to buy his way out of his latest troubles.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011
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