By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON – The botched defection several months ago of Musa Kusa, Libya’s former foreign minister, illustrates the uncertain strategy that has plagued the NATO campaign against Col. Moammar Gaddafi. But even so, the Gaddafi regime is feeling enough pressure to send an emissary to Washington this week to explore a possible negotiated settlement.
Kusa, a prominent member of Gaddafi’s inner circle, fled to Britain on March 30. His departure was initially touted as a major blow to the Libyan regime. But new details suggest it was an ill-planned rush job that has backfired. Kusa left Britain in mid-April and is now under wraps in Doha, Qatar.
The financial assumptions in the Libya strategy may need re-examination too. The White House had hoped that by this summer Gaddafi’s regime would be running low on money and would begin to implode. But one insider says the Libyan strongman still has a stash of about $10 billion inside the country.
What has emerged is a stalemate between Gaddafi’s military forces and the rebel movement, calling itself the Transitional National Council, headquartered in Benghazi. Neither the rebels nor their NATO backers have had much success yet in encouraging powerful tribes to switch allegiance – which, analysts say, is the key to regime change there.
The U.S., France and other countries hope to tip the balance toward the TNC by recognizing it as the official representative of the Libyan people. But that has been a paper title, so far, and the TNC has been unable to lure enough “reconcilable” members of Gaddafi’s circle to form a coalition government.
The Libya standoff is prompting the new interest in a political settlement. Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, sent an emissary who will meet this week with a senior representative of the Obama administration. The message is that Gaddafi will give up power and retreat into the desert, while technocrats in his regime work with the TNC to form a transitional government. Senussi, widely feared in Libya, would apparently also withdraw from power. The U.S. response couldn’t be learned.
The Kusa defection is a classic case of covert confusion. The Libyan official had originally planned to defect to France. A French intelligence officer is said to have contacted him on March 10 during a meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa. A French intelligence official met him again on March 29 at the Royal Garden Hotel in Djerba, Tunisia, and pitched him about defecting, promising residency, financial help and legal immunity.
The French plan faltered the next morning after Paris demanded that, as part of the deal, Kusa appear publicly with President Nicolas Sarkozy when he arrived in Paris and denounce Gaddafi. Kusa refused, and initiated frantic contacts with MI6 representatives in London about fleeing there. The British first asked for three days to work out details, but when Kusa said he had to leave immediately, MI6 hammered out the basics in several hours, and the Libyan flew to Farnborough Airport, southwest of London.
Kusa’s escape to Britain got off to a bad start. MI6 officers met him at the airport, but his visa paperwork wasn’t ready for several hours. The British weren’t demanding that Kusa publicly renounce Gaddafi, but they weren’t offering him immunity from prosecution, either, in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and 1984 shooting of a British policewoman. His debriefing at a safe house on the southern coast was rocky, in part because of the media frenzy about his defection – with Kusa reading tabloid headlines such as the Daily Mail’s description of him as Gaddafi’s “Fingernail-Puller-in-Chief.”
When Kusa’s passport was returned to him in mid-April, he promptly left for Qatar, nominally to attend a meeting of the “contact group” opposing Libya. He hasn’t left Doha since. The defection mishaps have been a “laughingstock” back in Libya, and undermined hopes of other recruitments, according to one intelligence source.
Whatever the NATO coalition’s miscues, the fact that Gaddafi’s circle has sent an emissary to Washington suggests that military pressure is slowly taking its toll. The problem is that because Libya’s tribal politics are so backward – CIA officers used to refer to the Libyan power elite as “the Flintstones” – a stable transition will be difficult. The TNC rebel movement still seems like a ragtag mix of ex-Gaddafi officials and Islamist militants.
If there’s a deal that can get Gaddafi out, end the fighting, unite the tribes and create a reasonably stable coalition government run by technocrats, the correct answer for the Obama administration would be “yes.”
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.