President Obama found a surprise on Wednesday when he opened the White House mailbox: a three-page letter from Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi opens his message familiarly, addressing Obama as his “son” and, in friendly fashion, hoping Obama will continue on as president and win the next election. But the reason for Gaddafi’s dropping Obama a line while NATO bombs are dropping on him was essentially to get the US president to intervene and call off the bombing campaign that began last March 17.
“As you know too well democracy and building of civil society cannot be achieved by means of missiles and aircraft, or by backing armed member of AlQaeda in Benghazi,” Gaddafi wrote in ungrammatical English, although his authorship cannot be confirmed.
A White House spokesman said this letter was “not the first” from Gaddafi to Obama. In a previous one, he called the American leader “our child” and sent it just as the bombing of Libya was about to begin. The letter’s purpose was to explain that he was remaining in power to fight al Qaeda.
“If you find them (al-Qaeda) take over American cities, what would you do?” Gaddafi wrote.
The timing of Wednesday’s letter, though, is just as interesting as its message as well as the fact it was only sent to Obama among the NATO leaders. On the one hand, the missive is an indication that the NATO air campaign is having an effect on Gaddafi’s forces. On the other, it can be viewed as a weapon in his life-or-death conflict with the rebels.
Gaddafi’s strategy now appears to consist of waiting for the coalitions opposing him, both that of NATO and of the rebels, to come apart. Helping rupture these alliances would therefore be one of his major preoccupations, and the letter can be interpreted as a means of helping bring this about.
In selecting Obama to receive his message, Gaddafi may perceive the American president to be the weakest link now in the NATO alliance. What probably prompted this perception, or misperception, is that American warplanes stopped flying combat sorties over Libya on April 4. American aircraft had been flying about half of all NATO combat missions. They will, however, continue to fly in supporting roles, carrying out military duties such as “reconnaissance, eavesdropping, aerial refuelling.” But reducing American participation in the conflict would have signalled weakness to a dictator like Gaddafi.
The downsizing of America’s air combat role, caused by America’s handing over military responsibility to NATO, was also encouraging to Gaddafi for another reason: It led this week to the first serious dispute between NATO and the anti-Gaddafi rebels. The lull in air strikes created by the handover prompted the rebels to accuse NATO of flying too few missions, leaving the impression they were being abandoned. NATO admitted there had been a “pause,” but responded its mission in Libya was to save civilian lives and not fly missions for the opposition.
Complaints about lack of NATO air support were especially severe concerning the rebels in the besieged city of Misrata, Libya’s third largest. The rebel chief, Abdel Fattah Junes, even accused NATO of giving the Misrata defenders over to destruction. Junes warned if NATO waits another week, there won’t be anyone left to help in Misrata.
“NATO has so far disappointed us,” said Nunes. “Our officers had contacted them many times with targets to bomb, and if NATO had wanted to end the siege of Misrata, it could have done so days ago.”
Besieged already for six weeks, if Misrata does fall amid much bloodshed, then the resulting friction between the rebels and NATO can only be imagined as well as the recriminations that will take place at the UN. One can also imagine Gaddafi’s pleasure with the strife taking place among his opponents over Misrata and his desire to capitalise on it.
Besides a direct appeal to Obama for help and an attempt to divide NATO, Gaddafi’s letter can also be viewed as seeking support among Obama’s liberal supporters. After calling the United States “the strongest power in the world nowadays,” Gaddafi refers to the war NATO is waging as “unjust” and “against a small people of a developing country.” These are all key phrases and images the left delights in promoting when it comes to the United States: a military bully once gain pummelling, undeservedly, a small, Third World country.
Other words present in the letter directed towards liberal hearts were “world peace” and “the UN General Assembly” where Gaddafi reminded Obama he saw him speak. But the icing on the cake occurs when Gaddafi cleverly mentions in the letter the 1980s “military armed aggression” against Libya and names the political left’s most reviled figure, Ronald Reagan, as the person responsible. All these references, of course, are also made to remind Obama of his own liberal background and that he is not a warmonger like Reagan. In the letter’s warm, gentle, non-belligerent language, Gaddafi also creates an image as a peaceful man himself.
Pulling out all the tricks to obtain Obama’s help, the letter contains emotional references to Obama’s Muslim and African backgrounds. Besides calling the President “my son” at the start of the letter, he also calls him “our son” in the second sentence, telling him, like a wayward child, “you will always remain our son whatever happen.”
Near the letter’s end, Gaddafi increases the emotional appeal, calling Obama, in Arabic fashion, “Our dear son, Excellency, Baraka Hussein Abu oumama” and tells him to get NATO to withdraw, so Libyans can solve their own problems within the framework of the African Union. By using his middle name, Hussein, Gaddafi is also reminding Muslim readers and Obama of his background and that NATO is bombing a Muslim country.
The longer the Libyan conflict continues, Gaddafi knows the better the chance the coalitions will unravel, as frictions and diverging goals will develop. Other countries like Russia and China, who were lukewarm against the intervention, may also come out against it as would countries of the African Union. And NATO’s inadvertent killing of civilians, like in Afghanistan, may lead to a demand that air strikes be stopped or limited. The coalitions, on the other hand, are waiting for Gaddafi’s side to disintegrate through defections, which are also occurring. Since the war appears to be settling into a stalemate around Brega, it is now a question of who can outwait the other.
Gaddafi’s letter is probably the opening shot in a propaganda offensive to relieve NATO pressure and hopefully divide the coalition. Obama probably received Gaddafi’s attention first, because he withdrew American forces from a direct combat role and from killing Libyans. While Obama will not intercede with NATO to stop the air strikes, he may be more sensitive now to pressure with an election year looming from his liberal base and Muslim organizations to negotiate an end to the Libyan violence. But the Libyan people will never be safe with a brutal dictator like Gaddafi around, so Obama should return the letter to sender, future address unknown.