Libya: Why the old 'quagmire' chestnut may not apply

NATO bombs rained on Tripoli today and even the African Union seemed to be turning its back on Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. But he has few incentives to surrender, even as his regime crumbles.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
A smoke plume rises into the sky over Tripoli, Libya, on Tuesday, June 7, following an airstrike. Low-flying NATO military craft have struck seven times in loud, banging succession over the Libyan capital Tripoli. The strikes occurred Tuesday morning, marking an increase in NATO pressure on the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

When NATO got involved in the Libyan war at French, American, and British prodding, opponents of the intervention dragged up the old "quagmire" chestnut: Libya's war would drag on interminably, and what was originally sold as a limited action from the air would gradually expand until there was a full-fledged foreign expedition in North Africa.

You know, just like Vietnam.

In fact, a ground invasion remains highly unlikely more than three months after bombs began dropping on Muammar Qaddafi's forces (dozens hit Tripoli today, with Libyan State TV saying Qaddafi's Bab al-Azizya compound was damaged). Mr. Qaddafi's government is being financially bled by international sanctions and is losing international and internal support, seemingly every day.

While many insist that a negotiated settlement is still the best way out of Libya's war, others are confident that the regime is crumbling from within. As is the nature of personality-driven states like Qaddafi's, a good front is put up until the moment when the house of cards comes tumbling down.

Beyond the Tripoli bombings, diplomatic pressure was placed on Qaddafi today by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, head of the African Union's Libya war group. The AU has been a stalwart supporter of Qaddafi until now, with pals like South Africa's Jacob Zuma grateful for Qaddafi's support for African revolutionary movements in the 70s and 80s.

But President Ould Abdel Aziz has seen enough. "Qaddafi can no longer lead Libya. His departure has become necessary," he told AFP. To be sure, he wants Qaddafi's removal to be part of a negotiated settlement. "The NATO strikes were maybe able to lower the intensity of action by the government forces at the time, but, in any case, they do not seem to be solving the problem and they cannot solve it."

NATO says the strikes today were at military intelligence buildings and the headquarters of his revolutionary guard, disputing Libyan claims that the state broadcaster was targeted. Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese diplomats arrived in Benghazi, the rebel capital, to encourage the ad hoc rebel leadership to enter dialogue with Tripoli.

While Qaddafi's forces have taken a severe beating since March, with dozens of tanks and rocket launchers destroyed, the defection of dozens of officers, and the western city of Misurata now firmly in rebel hands after enduring a withering onslaught, many fear he can hang on to what he has for a long time.

While it's arguable if Qaddafi, or the "king of kings" as he likes to call himself, would ever relinquish power (he has insisted he'll fight to the death), the situation is currently structured to give him no incentives at all for negotiating a way out. The rebels don't trust Qaddafi, who has offered cease-fires even as he shelled western towns and has relied heavily on torture and executions during his reign.

They're insisting that his removal from power is a precondition to talks with anyone else in Tripoli. But the problem is that the International Criminal Court has requested an arrest warrant for Qaddafi on war-crimes charges. While that warrant may be deserved, in practice it means that any country that offered Qaddafi a safe exile (as Saudi Arabia is providing for ousted Tunisian dictator Zine el Abdine Ben Ali), would be considered an international outlaw.

For Qaddafi, his options seem to be resigning himself to the rest of his life on trial and in prison at The Hague, or taking his chances by fighting at home.

But even in the heart of propaganda tours in Tripoli, there is evidence that respect for Qaddafi – and the fear that drives it – is on the wane. After NATO airstrikes on Sunday, foreign journalists in Tripoli were escorted by their minder to a hospital, where they saw a baby in a coma. Qaddafi's spokesman said the child was a victim of a NATO airstrike, but wouldn't allow the mother or the baby's doctors to speak. On the way out, a doctor passed a note to one of the reporters, saying the child had been hurt in a car accident.

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