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.