The War in Libya: What Will Come of Gaddafi?

With Libya locked in turmoil, Allan Dodds Frank talks to the former deputy CIA director who's been tracking Gaddafi for decades about the despot’s next move, his similarities to Milosevic—and why he may end up in Venezuela.

Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives at a hotel to give television interviews in Tripoli, Libya Tuesday, March 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis),Ben Curtis

During the four decades Admiral Bobby Ray Inman has been keeping a sharp eye on Muammar Gaddafi, what has struck him most about the Libyan dictator is his enduring knack for survival.

"He clearly over the years has backed down when he was confronted by force," says Inman. "He pulls back to survive, not to change his underlying attitude about the world, about holding on to power." While Gaddafi may be "certifiably crazy," the tyrant's remarkable tenure forces Inman to concede, "He is as wily as the proverbial desert fox."

As a naval intelligence officer, Inman began focusing on Colonel Gaddafi around September 1, 1969, when he overthrew Libya's King Idris in a bloodless coup. During Inman's term as Director of the National Security Agency (1977-1981), communications intercepts by the agency uncovered Gaddafi's "loan" of $220,000 to President Jimmy Carter's brother, Billy, as part of the Libyan effort to gain influence inside the White House.

"It was ham-handed. But I put that in the same category as Gaddafi's letter to President Obama," says Inman, referring to the letter the dictator sent Obama last week urging him to halt the air strikes. "Pretty outlandish, but again, it just shows he is not inhibited in trying any sort of device that might let him hold onto power."

Inman's assessment is that Gaddafi is playing for a stalemate, at least in the short term. "He will dodge or change direction without any qualms if he believes it will facilitate his holding onto power."

"If he gets a stalemate, he then can work on regaining the rest of the country."

"I don't think he will go easily," says Inman, who was deputy CIA director from 1981 to 1982. "If he gets a stalemate, he then can work on regaining the rest of the country."

Nor is he likely to be found, as Saddam Hussein was, cowering in a covered foxhole. "Right now, he does not face a large external invasion that has got the prospect of militarily dislodging him and hunting him down. So it is more likely that if anything happens to him, it is going to be from defection or desertion by someone in his inner circle."

Struck by the populist fervor in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, Western countries had hoped the inner Libyan circle would dispatch the 68-year-old Gaddafi quickly.

"Two things happened," says Inman. "One, he didn't immediately collapse. Two, his sons, who had sent signals about how moderate they were and how they would modernize, were equally motivated by their father's hold on power at all costs and therefore the immediate use of force against their own people to suppress the revolt."

And while the no-fly zone may have stopped Gaddafi from achieving a "quick kill" of his disorganized opposition, it also has not motivated him into making any obvious overtures about seeking exile -- an option that, if the embattled leader would take it, could plausibly work, according to Inman.

Babak Dehghanpisheh: America’s Islamist Allies in LibyaFull Coverage of Libya"I think we could find a place that would take him," he says. "I just don't think he yet sees that is his only outcome. If he really got concerned that somebody in his inner circle might try to assassinate him, then departing would become high priority. But as long as he doesn't question the loyalty of those who have access to him, he is going to try to hold onto power."

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Today, as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy at the University of Texas, Professor Inman says Western sanctions on Gaddafi's bank accounts will not "result in bringing him down in the near term." Gaddafi will be active in commerce, since cash to his countrymen is his most effective weapon, predicts Inman.

The CIA's World Factbook ranks Libya, with 47 billion barrels, as having the world's ninth largest oil reserves. With only 6.6 million people spread over more than 700,000 square miles, the largely desert country is relatively easy for Gaddafi to control.

"He clearly is going to need to have a continued flow of wealth if he is going to hold onto power, even in Western Libya. I suspect, even if he is a pariah, people are still going to buy oil from him. He will sell whatever he needs to raise cash to hold onto power. And what we do not know is how much cash does he have stashed and can access. I suspect it is a lot."

Inman doubts Gaddafi's sons, despite their current command over militias, can succeed him as the rulers of Libya, although he admits: "It depends on how much money they have to disperse to the various tribes."

Nor does Inman believe believe that many of the Libyan diplomats who defected are Gaddafi double agents or immediate candidates to replace him. "I think they probably leaped, on their own accord, from what they thought was a sinking ship; they may be left out there stranded on a deserted island for a while... It is not a coherent opposition. No leader on the rebel side that has got the potential to have everybody rally around."

From the United States point of view, a partition of Libya, much like the situation that has evolved in what was Yugoslavia, might be an acceptable outcome for now. The region, while splintered, could have been a lot worse, says Inman, even though Slobodan Milosevic stayed on for a very long time in Serbia, which is the same pattern we could see with Gaddafi."

Since he might face a war crimes trial, it is unlikely Gaddafi would go to a Western country or to the Middle East. Inman says that while the Gulf States would welcome Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, they would shun Gaddafi.

Should Gaddafi really depart, his destination might telegraph his actual intentions, says Inman. "If he contemplated trying to find a way to get back into Libya, then he might well take refuge in some country in Africa where he is reasonably close. If he does not think a return to power is likely, then I would not be surprised to see it be Venezuela."

Recalling how Gaddafi withdrew from sponsoring terrorism abroad for several years after President Reagan ordered the bombing of Libya, Inman is not worried about Gaddafi electing to finance terrorism attacks on Western countries.

"I don't think in the near term he is likely to be out sponsoring terrorist attacks elsewhere that would simply unify the rest of the world to go remove him from office," says Inman. "Right now, it is all talk about getting him out of office… The best outcome is we would like to see him leave. Right now, I do not see the factors that are going to encourage him to do that."

Allan Dodds Frank is a business investigative correspondent who specializes in white collar crime stories. He also is the former president of the Overseas Press Club of America, one of the many journalism organizations that protests the arrests of journalists abroad and repression of freedom of speech.