Can Chavez Rescue Gaddafi?

By Stephen Johnson

When protests against Muammar Qaddafi's 41-year rule began to envelop Libya in late February, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez may have been wondering if his 12-year-old regime could be next. So it was no surprise that, on March 1, he offered to send a vaguely defined goodwill mission to Tripoli to smooth over differences between Libya's despotic leader and opponents who want him out. If it should get off the ground, it could be bad news for Libya's people and possibly backfire on Chávez.

In truth, a rescue would preserve a faithful pillar in the support network for Latin America's hard left politicians. Qaddafi has been their friend ever since he came to power in 1969. In 1973, he embraced Cuban leader Fidel Castro at a conference on nonaligned countries in Algiers. In 1982, his World Mathaba organization was reportedly training revolutionaries from Africa and Latin America. In 1984, he bragged that he had sent troops and arms to the Sandinista comandantes in Nicaragua and that he would gather a group of nations to fight "American imperialism until we besiege it and crush its arrogance everywhere."

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Shortly after taking office in 1999, President Chávez visited the Middle East to persuade the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut production and raise oil prices. On the trip, he met with Qaddafi in Tripoli, as well as Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Mohamad Khatami of Iran. Today, Qaddafi ranks beside Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among a number of authoritarians who are close to Chávez. If Chávez didn't stand up for Qaddafi, Chávez's influence in Iran, Syria, OPEC, as well as in the Latin American left where Qaddafi's steadfast support is appreciated, could erode.

Quick to attack comments on his rule as "meddling," Chávez has sought opportunities to intervene in others' affairs, particularly when it could polish his image as a statesman and help out a friend. Approaching a contentious vote in 2007 to allow him unlimited terms in office, Chávez inserted himself into Colombia's internal conflict-offering to mediate the release of two hostages and a child held by Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerrillas. In this case, the beneficiary was the FARC, which looked like a legitimate political actor (instead of rural bandits) by negotiating with the head of a neighboring state.

Initially, Chávez lost that vote at home and was even thrown out by Colombia as a mediator for attempting to communicate directly with its military chief. But Chávez got himself reinstated and persuaded foreign diplomats and even former Argentine president Néstor Kirchner to fly into the Colombian jungle to witness the hostage release. When the bandits failed to deliver and the child was found in a Bogotá hospital, the dignitaries left disgusted. Yet days later, when the two adult captives were finally released, Chávez looked like a hero.

The glory lasted but a few months as the Colombian government figured out that it could retrieve hostages without negotiating with the guerrillas. When it rescued a former presidential candidate, three Americans, and 11 other captives from a FARC camp in July 2008, Chávez became irrelevant to Colombia's dealings with the FARC, which slid into a steep decline.

Still, the Colombia hostage episode shows how Chávez can force adversaries to react to situations he creates. Chávez's negotiating shenanigans sapped a good deal of time and attention from Colombia's leadership-a powerful reason for him to stir the waters in Libya to aid Qaddafi. As Libya's protests seem to be turning into a prolonged civil war, the international community may even call for some form of mediation. Who better to lead than someone with Qaddafi's ear?

The danger for Libyan dissidents would be that the egos and reputations of luminaries in the international community could become intertwined in an outcome. For example, figures such as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter or former Brazilian president Inacio Lula da Silva might become involved. Or the United Nations might impose a status quo solution that leaves Qaddafi in power, as democratic reforms are supposedly worked out, or not. That could be a lengthy, futile process for the Libyan people.

The risk for Chávez - and those who back his mediation offer - is that aiding an obsolete dictator may draw attention to their own musty despotism. Despite food shortages and an economic contraction, Chávez has spent more than $5 billion in a massive weapons buildup to armor-plate his regime. After five decades, the Castro brothers still maintain 11 million Cubans in a captive labor pool. President Daniel Ortega is nudging Nicaragua toward a one-party state, as it was when he was a comandante. And President Evo Morales has clamped down on civil liberties to consolidate power in Bolivia. Citizens could become discontented given the parallels.

As it turns out, Qaddafi's son Saif has characterized Chávez's offer as naïve, and leaders of Libya's protest movement have rejected it as a trap. That leaves it to the international community to recognize the absurdity and dangers involved in mediating a national rebellion. The first thing the world should want is for Libya's erstwhile leader to stop attacking his countrymen. The last thing it should do is intervene in a way that would snuff out each Libyan's quest for self-determination.

Stephen Johnson is a senior fellow and director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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