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Gaddafi Must Go - But Where?

Gaddafi Must Go - But Where?

By Carl M. Cannon - March 31, 2011

One day after speaking to the American people about the U.S. military intervention in Libya, President Obama said in a television interview that Muammar Gaddafi and those in his inner circle "know their days are numbered."

Maybe they do, maybe they don't. But one question raised by Obama's remarks is whether they will help Gaddafi step away from the world stage -- or whether such bravado will rouse the Libyan leader and his loyalists to fight until the bitter end, thereby increasing the carnage in that beleaguered North African nation.

The past is prologue, goes the saying, but as always, it depends whose history we are talking about. Is Gaddafi destined to be Saddam Hussein -- or Idi Amin. Or neither?

The Lessons of Saddam

Seven years ago, in the darkness of a December evening, U.S. soldiers outside the Iraqi town of Adwar pulled a scraggly, disoriented Saddam Hussein out of a "spider hole" six feet under the ground. It was an omen: Three years later, in December 2006, Saddam would be buried under the ground for good, hanged unceremoniously after exchanging taunts with his executioners, one of whom filmed the grisly scene on his cell phone.

Saddam's fate had occupied the mind of Libya's own dictator long before that lethal morning. On the eve of the hanging, Gaddafi pronounced Saddam a prisoner-of-war who should be tried by the foreign troops that captured him. Within days of the execution, Libya announced it was building a statue to honor him -- one depicting Saddam on the gallows alongside Omar Mukhtar, a Libyan national hero executed at age 73 for leading the armed resistance to Italian occupation in the time of Mussolini.

Even before Saddam's capture -- within days of the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, in fact -- Gaddafi took steps to forestall the very situation he now finds himself in: facing NATO warplanes and Western demands that he relinquish power. At Gaddafi's direction, Libyan functionaries approached British and American officials with a stunning offer: the regime in Tripoli was voluntarily dismantling its chemical and nuclear weapons programs.

Foreign policy veterans who had worked in Democratic administrations expressed skepticism that this overture was related to the U.S. invasion, but Gaddafi apparently informed old Silvio Berlusconi otherwise. "I saw what happened in Iraq," Gaddafi reportedly told Italy's prime minister, "and I was afraid."

And so, Gaddafi gave up his WMD, and the Bush administration restored diplomatic relations with Libya, whose leader was no longer portrayed, in Ronald Reagan's memorable phrase, as the "mad dog of the Middle East." He had avoided Saddam's fate -- until now.

"Muammar Gaddafi clearly lost the confidence of his own people and the legitimacy to lead," President Obama said in a televised address 10 days after NATO airstrikes began targeting Gaddafi's troops. In London one day later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed those words -- and amplified on them: "Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead, so we believe he must go. We're working with the international community to try to achieve that outcome." German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle chimed in, too: "One thing is quite clear and has to be made very clear to Gaddafi: His time is over. He must go."

But these demands beg the central question. Sure, it's easy enough to say he must go. But go where?

He Must Go

The United States and its allies have long wrestled with the question of where deposed dictators ought to reside. It is not a trivial question: if they've no escape hatch, it makes sense for them to fight, literally to the death, to hold onto power. Fighting to the very end, however, as Gaddafi seems to be doing now, entails brutalizing their own people, exacerbating the very suffering the Western powers are attempting to stop.

The example usually pointed to by human rights activists is Idi Amin, the despot who ruled Uganda for eight murderous years in the 1970s. When things fell apart, Amin escaped to Libya before being given sanctuary in Saudi Arabia where he lived out his life on the top two floors of a Jeddah hotel.

Jeddah is not an option for Libya's tyrant. "Gaddafi cannot go to Saudi Arabia," notes Sam Bell, executive director of the Genocide Intervention Network. "They hate him -- he tried to assassinate one of the royal family's princes."

But Bell notes that Gaddafi has used his nation's oil profits strategically. Among those he is believe to have lavished money on is Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who offered this week to give safe harbor to Gaddafi. Putting the best possible face on it, Ugandan government spokesman Tamale Mirundi said Ugandans remember those who fled the country during Idi Amin's rule to other nations. "So we have soft spots for asylum seekers," Mirundi told the Associated Press. "Gaddafi would be allowed to live here if he chooses."

It's a creepy triangle of repression, this axis between Uganda, Libya and Saudi Arabia -- but Uganda's offer is not without its uses to the rest of the world. However, would Gaddafi really be allowed that option -- would the world community really allow him to live out his days in Uganda?

Idi Amin's retirement to a life of luxury was hard to swallow, but the Saudi option certainly saved lives. (Proof of that came in 1989 when Amin tried to return to Uganda in hopes of taking power. He made it as far as the Congo before being apprehended and returned to Saudi Arabia.)

Gaddafi's Limited Options

The many genocides of the 20th century gave birth to a new institution of the 21st -- the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague. The ICC doesn't have a police force, but it does have prisons. And already, Libyan troops fighting on Gaddafi's side in the civil war have been put on notice by the U.N. Security Council that they may face prosecution by the ICC. Will this put pressure on them to desist from firing on civilians, and possibly defect? Or, instead, will it remind the regime's loyalists that the only positive outcome for them is for Gaddafi to remain in power, thus increasing the violence and providing incentive for further atrocities?

"There is little evidence that the Western powers gave the vital question of where would Gaddafi go -- unaddressed in President Obama's speech Monday -- much thought at all," says political scientist Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "The West must guard against its penchant to seek a political solution to the transition from dictatorship, while insisting that the dictator is guilty of war crimes and must be tried in a criminal tribunal. Powerful people tend to be reluctant to give up power, particularly when they know that the alternative is a trial with an all-but-predetermined outcome."

Sam Bell adds that the ICC is not supposed to be susceptible to political influence, and that the European governments that brought it into existence favor having a completely independent prosecutor. This would seem to rule out any plea bargain that would convey amnesty to Gaddafi. On the other hand, there are practical limits to the reach of the bureaucrats in the Hague. "The ICC does not have a police force," Bell says. "And the regime in Uganda might be reluctant to give up Gaddafi."

But what if there is a regime change in Uganda -- or a change of heart in Kampala? Surely Gaddafi remembers Charles Taylor, the Liberian war criminal granted asylum by Nigeria -- or so he thought. When Taylor began meddling from afar in the affairs of Sierra Leone, he was extradited by Nigeria, and is currently imprisoned in the Netherlands. "Charles Taylor is the cautionary tale for Gaddafi," Bell says.

So is Saddam Hussein. That statue of Saddam that Gaddafi vowed to build on the gallows alongside Libyan resistance fighter Omar Mukhtar was never built. In fact, a shrine to Mukhtar already existed in the city of Benghazi, now the stronghold of the anti-government rebels -- and Gaddafi had that monument razed out of fear it would incite dissidents. His instincts were right: the name Mukhtar still inspires desires of independence in that part of Libya where his 90-year-old son Mohammed Omar Mukhtar is a tribal elder in Benghazi. There, in the grassy circle where the statue once stood flies a banner proclaiming, "Omar Mukhtar said WE DIE OR WIN."

Actually, what Mukhtar said on the gallows in 1931 was: "To God we belong and to Him we shall return." But such philosophical insight is often in short supply in Middle East politics, in our time as well as his -- and on both sides of the Atlantic.

President Obama followed his "days are numbered" threats to Gaddafi with a metaphor reminiscent of the indelicate rhetorical style employed by a certain recent U.S. president from Texas. "The noose is tightening" in Libya, Obama said, presumably around the necks of Gaddafi and his loyalists. This imagery may be appropriate, but it seems counterproductive. As a scientific and theological certainty everyone's days are numbered, Mr. President, but few men want their demise to come on the end of a hangman's rope.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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