Jacob Heilbrunn

Col. Qaddafi, Seeker of Knowledge

So the Obama administration has decided that it's time, after all, to establish a no-fly zone in Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is quoted in the New York Times as stating:


The turning point was really the Arab League statement on Saturday. . . . That was an extraordinary statement in which the Arab League asked for Security Council action against one of its own members.

 It's interesting that the Arab League now gets to determine American foreign policy. If Obama wants to intervene in Libya, it's nice that the Arab League would sanction it. But is its benison really the prerequisite for attacking the mad dog of the Middle East? If only Ronald Reagan had known, then his bombing in 1983 might not have stirred such controversy. He could have asked the Arab League for permission first.

There is another problem. It is this: if America, a few NATO countries, and perhaps a few Arab countries create a no-fly zone, it will result in a partitioned Libya. President Obama has been trying to remain out of Libya. This could result in an even more protracted American engagement than an original decision to create a no-fly zone at the outset of the uprising.

The most likely outcome, of course, is that the western powers will dither and Col. Qaddafi manages to crush his opponents. But will that really trouble the French, who quickly recognized the rebels? In the March 11 Times Literary Supplement, J.C. notes that former ambasador to Libya Guy Georgy provided a fulsome comment to the French edition of Qaddafi's short stories, which apparently appeared in France in 1997. The book is called Escape to Hell and Other Stories. Georgy advised that Qaddafi seemed to be a "voracious reader and seeker of knowledge," a "little shepherd" who "dreamed of liberating his people as he tended his sheep."

Obama used to get talked about in similar terms, at least when he was running for office. Now he's transformed himself into a hardened realist, only to shrink from the consequences. Washing his hands entirely of Libya could be bad for his image as the great liberator, the speechmaker in Cairo whose talk about democracy deliquesced into the ether once it became time to act.

Still, the grim predictions about Libya becoming a redoubt of terrorism should Qaddafi retain power may not come to pass. Qaddafi could begin his rehabilitation. Soon enough he would have admirers from France eager to resume visiting the seeker of knowledge, the shepherd of his flock. And his traditional ties with Italy could serve him in good stead as well. Prime Minister Berlusconi is only nipped at the finish line by Qaddafi in his lunacy. The two men have more in common than not. And what would the foreign press corps do without Qaddafi? His flamboyance has always made him a vivid character, whether it's trying to pitch a tent in Central Park or showing up for a press conference in 1980 in a Sherlock Holmes get-up, wearing a Burberry ulster. So in the end, the Libyan affair may prove to be no more than a blip.