If Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi were Harry Houdini, his signature ability to survive otherwise certain death might be called the Milk Can Escape. Houdini managed to perform that act for four years-freeing himself from handcuffs while sealed inside a water-filled milk can, with the milk can locked inside another milk can, and the audience holding its breath. Qaddafi, on the other hand, has perfected elaborate escapes while the saner world watched for more than 40 years. t In one infamous getaway in April 1986, Qaddafi and his family fled the Tripoli compound, where they lived, only moments before U.S. fighters dropped 36 2,000-pound bombs there.
The attacks were part of a U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine air campaign ordered by then-president Ronald Reagan in response to a Berlin discotheque bombing earlier that year that killed U.S. servicemen. Qaddafi got a last-minute heads-up from Malta, or from the Italians, ran the rumors.
And there were other escapes, as Qaddafi survived assassination attempts by outsiders and from his own army, put down regular bouts of street uprisings that threatened his regime, and outlasted 25 years of punitive economic sanctions brought on by his support for terrorist groups. When street protests began in February, Libya's per capita income-over $14,000-was one of the highest in Africa.
But as March began, the 69-year-old leader stood closer than ever before to the death of both his regime and himself. Rebel forces organized under a "National Transitional Council" had captured key oil ports, including Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city. They held ground in the face of more than a week of aerial assaults by Qaddafi's forces and moved within hailing distance of Tripoli, the capital. Despite brutal street fighting and shelling from Libyan ships Qaddafi ordered close in to the coast, the opposition forces captured city after city, moving east to west.
Every wave of rebel advance brought disturbing reports of Libyan forces firing on unarmed protesters, arrests, and forced disappearances of civilians. But with the first drafting of a resolution to impose a UN Security Council no-fly zone over Libya on March 7, the regime looked ready to topple. Reports of more Houdini-like stunts persisted: Qaddafi had fled to Cairo, Qaddafi was onboard a luxury jet bound for Venezuela, Qaddafi, one blogger enthused, "escapes, running Libya from moon base via Skype."
But the dictator, through his son Saif, vowed to "fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet."
And then another escape hatch opened, this one not in north Africa but at the other end of Asia and in the shape of a natural disaster. Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami for a time sunk global markets, hampered communications across the Pacific and beyond, shut ports and halted shipping, raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe, and-most importantly for Qaddafi-preoccupied world leaders and media at just the moment he planned death-defying assaults on his own people.
And so from the Near East to the Far East the world turned upside down. Emerging from a winter of discontent in the region comprising North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Middle East, anti-government agitators suddenly were confronted with a dictator who would not go. And a symbol of affluence, efficiency, and order-Japan-lay listing like a capsized ocean liner in the Pacific.
By March 13, Libyan forces loyal to Qaddafi had retaken the oil refinery town of Brega, and two days later Qaddafi forces reclaimed most of the rebel-held towns between Tripoli and Benghazi. As hours passed and Qaddafi advanced, UN Security Council members could not decide whether a no-fly zone was called for. NATO and European leaders meeting in Brussels could not agree to a plan of action, either, even as France became the first to recognize Libya's opposition National Transitional Council in Benghazi. The Arab League alone, in a stunning show of unity and pro-Western sentiment (and political moxie, as departing Secretary-General Amr Moussa has announced his candidacy for the Egyptian presidency) made a concerted public call for a multinational military clamp on Qaddafi.
In Washington, President Barack Obama made no immediate statements on the unfolding crisis, except to announce military assistance for evacuation of Americans and Egyptians trapped there (he also waited a week after the quake to deliver personal condolences to the Japanese Embassy in Washington). Yet he dispatched leading cabinet members and military commanders to Capitol Hill to warn lawmakers about the challenges of enacting a no-fly zone, saying it would be "extraordinarily complex" (in the words of Adm. Mike Mullen on March 1) and could leave Qaddafi in power.
Then abruptly, and even as thousands of U.S. military forces were called to assist in Japan, the administration about-faced. On March 16 U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice not only announced support for the no-fly zone, but said military action should go beyond air cover to protect Libyans-suggesting a "regime change" of the kind endorsed by the Bush administration and Congress in Iraq, yet derided by Obama. Late the following day, the UN Security Council passed the no-fly zone resolution.
Subsequent airstrikes over Libya included over 100 Tomahawk missiles-a number not dropped since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the subsequent onslaught of firepower that included French, British, U.S. forces, and four warplanes from Qatar, regime change indeed appeared the goal. Missiles struck Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli (to say he escaped seems redundant). Arab leaders called out the Western powers for lack of strategy. "What we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," said Moussa.
Republicans pounced on the administration's hard-to-cipher response. Presidential hopeful and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the intervention "opportunistic amateurism without planning or professionalism." House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, offered support for the no-fly zone but warned, "Before any further military commitments are made, the administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission." In a letter to the president March 23, he noted, "by contrast, it appears your Administration has consulted extensively on these same matters with foreign entities such as the United Nations and the Arab League."
Democrats, too, found it hard to go along with Obama, who as a candidate in 2007 had declared, "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve an actual or imminent threat to the nation."
"In the absence of a credible, direct threat to the United States and its allies or to our valuable national interests, what excuse is there for not seeking congressional approval of military action?" asked Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. "I think it is wrong and a usurpation of power and the fact that prior presidents have done it is not an excuse."
At the White House and later traveling in South America, Obama found himself having to court Arab allies by phone in order to keep them on board with the latest U.S. military assault in their region. The problem for them: whether they would be abandoned by the same White House if (or when) protesters reached critical mass in their own streets.
The Libyan incursion seems to be based on little intelligence as to whether the rebels now receiving U.S. support are any better than the tyrant they hope to overthrow. Yet the United States has committed assets in the region to one conflict among many, and possibly a lesser one-given potential for a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Bahrain and Yemen, continued instability in Egypt, and bloodshed from North Africa to Syria. The winner so far is the UN, which now can claim the White House as an administrative arm. The loser is the U.S. Congress, which according to the Constitution has the power to declare war-and isn't taking lightly the lack of consultation.