Update | 10:15 p.m. | Gadhafi vows ‘martyrdom’
As opposition forces stormed Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli Tuesday, the Libyan autocrat released a radio message asserting that his desertion of the bunker in Bab al-Aziziya was a “tactical move,” and vowed “martyrdom” in the face of the rebel assault, according to Reuters.
The new message came amid sporadic fighting in Tripoli between loyalist holdouts and rebels, who had descended on the capital city with stunning speed and, by Tuesday evening, had penetrated the Gadhafi compound, where there was no sign of the colonel or his family. The mystery of his whereabouts continued to frustrate opposition leaders and complicated the Libyan conflict’s endgame.
Bloggers affiliated with the opposition movement reported that electricity had slowly returned to Tripoli and that residents were moving more freely around the city, including to the newly re-christened “Martyrs Square,” formerly a frequent gathering place for Gadhafi supporters. There were celebrations in the square as opposition forces routed the few loyalist fighters defending Gadhafi’s compound. They paraded out into the city with artifacts from the ruins, including Gadhafi’s hat and his golf cart. Residents also defaced a well-known statue of the quixotic leader.
“For the Gadhafi regime, this is the final chapter,” Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for the NATO alliance, said Tuesday. “The end is near, and events are moving fast. What’s clear to everybody is that Gadhafi is history, and the sooner he realizes it, the better.”
Obama: ‘The Gadhafi regime is coming to an end’
President Obama said in a brief statement from his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard Monday that the conflict in Libya had reached “a tipping point,” and that Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule was “coming to an end,” even as he cautioned against presumptive declarations of victory, adding, “This is not over yet.”
Obama sought to portray the dissolution of Gadhafi’s grip on power as the result of a deliberate, calculated partnership between the U.S. and European allies and the rebel forces in Libya. “To our friends and allies, the Libyan intervention demonstrates what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one — although the efforts in Libya are not yet over,” Obama said. “NATO has once more proven that it is the most capable alliance in the world and that its strength comes from both its firepower and the power of our democratic ideals.”
The president also urged the National Transitional Council, the organizing body of the opposition movement, to continue its preparations for a post-Gadhafi state, and promised that the U.S. and its allies would work closely with the leaders of the opposition to safeguard Libyan institutions and set about the business of building a democracy from the ground up. “As we move forward from this pivotal phase, the opposition should continue to take important steps to bring about a transition that is peaceful, inclusive and just,” Obama said. “In that effort, the United States will be a friend and a partner.”
Obama’s remarks came as the jubilation that accompanied the rebels’ arrival in Tripoli Sunday gave way to mounting anxiety and turmoil, with sporadic clashes breaking out across the city and power outages shutting off lines of communication. Calls to several working phone numbers in Tripoli failed to connect, and Google reported on its “transparency report” that, after a spike in Internet activity from Libya, traffic had dropped precipitously on Monday. Opposition members attributed the power outages to a shortage of fuel from refineries outside Tripoli.
Even as they struggled to assert control of the capital and establish a stable interim government that could protect residents and civil institutions, the rebels were also expected to begin laying the groundwork for Libya’s long-term future as a free, open society. The leaders of the anti-Gadhafi movement, mostly Western-educated technocrats and military leaders, have, until now, managed to stitch together loosely coordinated groups of rebels into a fairly organized opposition council.
But as Bayless Parsley, an analyst for the intelligence firm Stratfor, noted in a dispatch sent out by the company Monday, that limited amount of cohesion could quickly dissolve once the unifying goal of ousting Gadhafi has been achieved, and the task of distributing political power begins. “There are a lot of different fronts in the Libyan war manned by different groups from different parts the country,” Parsley wrote. “Each of these groups is now going to feel as if it is entitled to a certain share of political authority, economic reward and share of power in the new Libya.”
What happens to Gadhafi?
Perhaps the most destabilizing element of the Libya endgame is the mystery surrounding Gadhafi’s whereabouts. There were reports of intense fighting surrounding his compound in Bab al-Aziziya, and speculation about the autocrat’s status was rampant. A spokesman for the rebels in London, Guma El-Gamaty, wrote on Twitter late Sunday that there were rumors Gadhafi “may have been arrested in Alamiriya district outside Tripoli.”
As those rumors proved false, others circulated. Opposition leaders began to express doubts that Gadhafi was still in Tripoli at all, and speculated that he may have fled to a sympathetic neighbor, such as Algeria. Media organizations reported that South African war planes were spotted in Tripoli, stoking speculation that the aircraft may have been sent to whisk Gadhafi to safety. A spokeswoman for the South African government later denied those rumors Monday, saying she was certain Gadhafi would not seek asylum in the country.
Still other rumors place Gadhafi in a hospital in Tripoli, or in a bunker of some sort below the Rixos Hotel, where international journalists have been holed up amid the fighting. Pentagon officials have said there is no indication Gadhafi has even left the city. But since none of the rumors have been corroborated, the mystery of Gadhafi’s whereabouts persists, complicating what is already likely to be a messy endgame in Libya. If Gadhafi manages to elude the rebels’ grasp, he could attempt to lead an insurgency from within Libya, perhaps from his native Sirte, a stronghold to the west of Tripoli.
Alternatively, Gadhafi could flee to a nearby country and lead a regime-in-exile from there. But if history proves a guide, that path could be tricky: Liberian dictator Charles Taylor sought refuge in Nigeria after he was accused of war crimes during the Liberian civil war, but he was turned over to the International Criminal Court in 2006. As Roger Clark, a professor of international law, told Need to Know earlier this year, Gadhafi “may go and get double-crossed.”
Another foreign policy success for Obama?
The gains in Tripoli are still tentative, and the arduous work of nation-building has yet to begin, but if Gadhafi’s regime does indeed crumble, the success of the rebel movement and of the NATO alliance may well be seen by many as a vindication of President Obama’s much maligned strategy in Libya, and another credit to his handling of foreign policy.
Obama had come under fire from Republicans and Democrats alike for what many characterized as a foolhardy gambit in a country that has been under the iron grip of a dictator for four decades. Those critics argued alternatively that Obama had surpassed his authority as commander-in-chief, that he had plunged the nation into another intractable conflict in the Middle East or that he had failed to do enough to aid the budding pro-democracy movement in Libya. Some even argued all three.
Of course, the rebels’ success does not change many of those arguments. Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, for example, has continued to argue that the conflict was illegal and should end immediately; Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, have said that Obama should have done more to speed Gadhafi’s ouster.
As Need to Know reported early in the conflict, NATO commanders faced the awkward choice of either surpassing their mandate from the United Nations, to protect civilians, in a more aggressive bid to dislodge Gadhafi, or taking a passive role in the conflict by simply providing air cover, which would have proven safer but less decisive. In the end, it seems, they found a way to do both: U.S. and European officials maintained close contact with rebel leaders, providing smarter and more accurate surveillance and surgically destroying key targets, making it nearly impossible for Gadhafi’s regime to command its units in the field.
The apparent success of that strategy is likely to provide yet another boost to Obama’s credibility on foreign affairs, just as the killing of Osama bin Laden and the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq have buoyed his poll numbers on foreign policy. The question, however, is whether those successes matter at all to voters.
In May, Michael Shear made the case in The New York Times for Obama “campaigning as a foreign policy president.” Matt Bennett, a former Clinton White House official and founder of the centrist group Third Way, agreed in an interview with Need to Know that Obama had proven “his general competency with issues related to national security,” and that his edge on those issues would neutralize one of the Republicans’ most reliable advantages in elections over the last 30 years.
But Frank Newport, of the Gallup organization, cautioned that, come November 2012, international events like the war in Libya would matter little to voters beleaguered by the poor economy. “It certainly doesn’t hurt a president to have well-established credentials as a strong commander-in-chief,” Newport said. “It’s going to be the economy that’s going to really be the issue. And the shrewd Republican will no doubt try to take advantage of that.”