WASHINGTON – Don't count out Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
For over four decades, the wily Libyan strongman has locked horns with Western leaders, including eight U.S. presidents, and so far he's mostly managed to emerge unscathed. There's a reason why he's held onto power for so long, and that survivor's instinct may motivate him to seek ways wiggle out from under new U.N.-sanctioned air strikes.
How do the United States and its allies deal with Gadhafi now — after demanding he step down, signing onto a U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone and expressing solidarity with the rebels? Very warily, suggest American officials.
"If Gadhafi does not comply with the resolution, the international community will impose consequences, and the resolution will be enforced through military action," Obama declared on Friday in brief remarks at the White House.
"For decades, he's demonstrated a willingness to use brute force, through his sponsorship of terrorism against the American people as well as others, and through the killings that he has carried out within his own borders."
The fact that Gadhafi has vexed a string of previous presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, doesn't offer much guidance to Obama as he attempts to navigate a careful path between exercising too much U.S. military power in yet another Muslim country, and doing too little to help rebels seeking Gadhafi's ouster.
"The driving consideration is what comes next if a no-fly zone doesn't work," said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state.
"I think Gadhafi's capacity to survive has little or nothing to do with us. If anything, we've lent to his bizarre system of government through the way we've demonized him in the past. To some degree, we've played into his hands," said Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank.
The Security Council's vote to authorize military action and the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect rebels seeking to oust Gadhafi was met by an announcement Friday from Libya of an immediate cease-fire and "the stoppage of all military operations."
But after weeks of violence, rebels seeking to oust Gadhafi were skeptical, saying shelling by regime forces was continuing despite the purported cease-fire. The rebels' skepticism was shared by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"We are going to be not responsive or impressed by words. We would have to see actions on the ground, and that is not yet at all clear," she said.
Still, Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, suggested that "Obama has a fundamentally different choice than any other American president had with Gadhafi."
Coordinated military action against Libya "has the potential to fundamentally affect the whole nature of the broader era of revolt in the Middle East," O'Hanlon said. "How this plays out affects the entire cascading series of events in the Middle East."
The troubled relationship between Gadhafi and the West began in 1969 on Nixon's watch, when the young Libyan military officer overthrew Libya's frail King Idris. He shortly expelled American and British troops from Libya and demanded — and received — higher prices for his country's oil exports, much of them going to Europe.
That strategy collapsed when Saudi Arabia and Iran joined other oil-producing countries in the Arab oil boycott of 1973, mainly in retaliation to the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur War. And the Western-backed government of the shah of Iran fell in the 1979 revolution.
Throughout the 1970s, Gadhafi supplied weapons, training and safe haven to terrorists, including Italy's Red Brigades and the Irish Republican Army.
President Jimmy Carter denounced Gadhafi as a "polecat" and tried to keep his distance. But, in an embarrassment for President Carter, his brother Billy made three trips to Libya, obtained a controversial $250,000 loan, and even registered as a foreign agent of the Libyan government.
Shortly after his inauguration in 1981, Reagan expelled Libyan diplomats from Washington upon reports that Libyan assassination teams were targeting U.S. envoys. Reagan labeled Gadhafi the "mad dog of the Middle East."
In 1986, when Libya was linked to the bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by US soldiers, Reagan ordered air strikes against Gadhafi's compound and other targets in Tripoli and Benghazi. More than 100 people were killed, including Gadhafi's young adopted daughter. But Gadhafi escaped unharmed to continue to taunt Reagan.
In 1988, at the end of Reagan's two terms, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270, many of them Americans. Libyan agents were blamed for the bombing. Years later, Libya would accept responsibility for the bombing and agree to monetary settlements.
After Reagan, Gadhafi sought to court President George H.W. Bush, praising him and Secretary of State James A. Baker III for not attacking him personally and seeming "to be serious" about seeking peace in the Middle East. Bush wasn't impressed. He extended Reagan's sanctions and declaration of a national emergency with respect to Libya.
President Bill Clinton maintained and expanded those sanctions, telling Congress in 1994 that Libya posed 'a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat" to U.S. national security.
After being treated as an international pariah for three decades, Gadhafi did an about-face in 2003, after President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.
Fearing his country might be next on Bush's list, Gadhafi agreed to Bush's demands that he give up his nuclear- and chemical-weapons programs. He also renounced terrorism, leading the U.S. to remove it from the list of "state sponsors of terrorism." And in 2008, the U.S. and Libya established full diplomatic relations.
Following Bush's example, European leaders also rushed to openly court Gadhafi.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy allowed him to pitch his Bedouin tent in Paris, while Italy's Silvio Berlusconi gave Gadhafi red-carpet treatment in Italy. British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to Libya in 2004 and for face-to-face talks with Gadhafi.
Trade flourished. The U.S. and European countries sold Libya billions of dollars of military and paramilitary equipment as recently as 2010.
Was Bush's outreach a blunder? At the time, "it was a pragmatic decision on the part of Bush, and a pragmatic decision for Gadhafi," said Richard Downey, an African expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Gadhafi saw the tide turning. The invasion of Iraq gave him a jolt."
But relations began to sour again after former Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted for the 1988 bombing, was released by Scottish officials in August 2009 on humanitarian grounds.
Gadhafi, of course, greeted him as a celebrity.
In his White House remarks Friday, Obama said the United States will not "stand idly by" amid the Libyan chaos. "Action is necessary," he said, while emphasizing that he had no plans to deploy ground troops.
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