Sunday, March 13, 2011

How to lose by winning (Gaddafi method)

By Friday it was clear, according to the conventional wisdom and a lot of available evidence on the ground, that the forces of Libyan enforcer Muammar Gaddafi were getting the upper hand.

In a moment of unscripted candor (one the White House has since indicated was off-message), Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that to senators on Thursday. “I just think from a standpoint of attrition, that over time, I mean – this is kind of a stalemate back and forth, but I think over the longer term that the (Gaddafi) regime will prevail,” he said.

Whether you agree with Clapper’s assessment or not, it suggests that the talk in high places is shifting from debating the likelihood of a post-Gaddafi Libya to discussing the prospects for a Libya with Gaddafi presiding over a civil war, nominally in charge of a country that’s a different place from the one he ruled two weeks ago.

That could still be premature: The rebels still hold Benghazi, but forces loyal to the regime are preparing for what could be a final assault on Libya’s second-largest city. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of Libya’s revolutionary council, told The Guardian (UK) that if Gaddafi's forces were to reach Benghazi, it would mean “the death of half a million” people.

In the narrow and immediate calculus of winning and losing, Gaddafi has brutally exacted a series of triumphs on the battlefields that once were cities and towns. But stepping back and looking at things through a wider lens, it’s clear that Gaddafi’s victory, if and when it truly arrives, may be narrower and even more impermanent than he thinks.

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The last two weeks has shown Libyans the worst side of Muammar Gaddafi. His citizens — more than 45 percent of whom weren’t alive when he took over 42 years ago — have been witness to a ruthlessness most of them haven’t seen before.

It’s one thing to experience day-to-day deprivations that, bad as they are, may be difficult to causally connect to a dictatorship bent on suppressing the drive for personal liberty and initiative. It’s quite another to see that dictatorship’s power literally brought to bear against innocents throughout the country in a variety of ways, from air strikes to veritable firing squads in the street.

Nothing makes the abstraction of raw dictatorial power real like blood on your shirt. Your neighbor’s blood, your daughter's blood or your own.

Now that they can see Gaddafi for what he is, now that they’ve accepted what’s at stake for themselves and their country, the pro-reform activists will keep up the fight, alone if necessary, with sporadic acts of wildcat revolt meant to incrementally destabilize the Gaddafi regime (in a word: insurgents).

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But the enemy within is only half his problem. The prospects for a NATO-led no-fly zone are still strong, despite Gaddafi solidifying his control of events on the ground.

Events in Libya of recent days have the full attention of the White House, NATO and the Arab League, the 122-member confederation that’s called on the United Nations Security Council to institute a no-fly zone over Libya, to shield Libyans from being attacked by their own air force.

At least $30 billion in Libyan assets, what probably amounted to the contents of the Gaddafi family ATM, was frozen in U.S. banks late in February. That happened during a new round of the sanctions Libya is all too familiar with. All in all, measures intended to make Gaddafi more of a global pariah than he’s long been (despite his brief flirtation with world-stage respectability not so many years ago).

Barring the deus ex machina event of some foreign country’s boots on the ground, Gaddafi likely stays in control of his country. But the people of his country, having found out his true nature, will never deal with him the same way. That means a host of challenges he’s never had to deal with before, at this scale.

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News reports today have Gaddafi trying to work his way back into the hearts of his people with huge cash distributions, street money circulated in or near the same places where the fighting was fiercest a week ago.

That may quell some of the unrest in the short term; the coin of the realm does that very well. But the underlying injustices and incivilities of Libyan life won’t be forgotten just because he’s givin’ away a million in prizes and battlefield amnesties. It’s inescapable: the uprising of late February didn’t begin for no reason.

While it’s safe to assume the resistance may soon go underground — hooking up with each other and the rest of the world via Skype and Twitter — information about their battle for liberation is viral above ground too, and has been from the beginning. On Al Jazeera and on mainstream networks in the West, there’s a new 24/7 global attention being paid to Libya’s changes, and it don’t stop.

Gaddafi is fighting to win the right to preside over a country beset by external sanctions and a smoldering internal passion for reform. If he does win militarily, he’ll lose whatever respect they once had for him (or  what little respect they had already). They’ll know what he’s capable of doing, and what he’s capable of doing again when it suits him. And eventually, no-fly zone or not, the hundreds of thousands of Libyans who revolted, will do it all over once more.

Having had a whiff of the heady possibilities of free expression, having raised their voices in the world’s public square, they’ll never be satisfied with the old Libya again. In the longer term, the populist energies that made the uprising possible in the first place won’t be extinguished, only delayed.

Image credits: Gaddafi top: Ben Curtis/Associated Press. Libyan protest: Al Jazeera. Map of Libya: CIA Factbook. Gaddafi bottom: Still from Libyan state TV.

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