Antaeus was a Libyan giant whose strength appeared invincible. One day he challenged the mighty Hercules to a wrestling match. Each time Antaeus was thrown to the ground, he rose again stronger than before. Hercules realized that his strength came from his mother Gaia, the Earth, so he held the giant aloft until his strength drained away and finally killed him.
Once again battle is joined on Libya’s sands, and the question now is which one is Antaeus and which is Hercules. Whose strength will ultimately drain away and be defeated, and who will triumph? Can Antaeus actually win this time?
Perhaps the more classically educated among our Western leaders—are there any left?—think they are effectively holding Gaddafi aloft and draining him of his strength by imposing their no-fly zone and shooting up armored columns that cross invisible red lines. Possibly they expect their flash of high-tech, rocket-powered Herculean strength to impress these simple desert people and so deprive the Libyan leader of the support he still draws from a considerable portion of them. The West’s desired end game is probably a replay of the Northern Alliance kicking out the Taliban, little realizing, through the welter of intelligence reports, the subtle differences between one end of the Islamic world and the other.
It seems more likely that the Western Hercules has merely succeeded in throwing Antaeus to the ground. The past couple of weeks have shown that the Libyan leader still has plenty of military power and would have soon ended this civil war if the West had sat on its thumbs a little while longer. Despite the splendor of its armaments, the West is constrained in what it can do. Already the US and its cronies look bad for declaring war on Gaddafi on the pretext that he is harming his own people while they ignore similar brutalities carried out by Western allies in Bahrain and Yemen.
To actually employ the firepower required to topple Gaddafi might make this ill-judged intervention look even worse. A few demolished buildings surrounded by wailing civilians or a busload of children blown to smithereens because some in-flight computer decided it resembled a tank could easily drain off the strength the Western giant draws from its public’s half-baked notion that it is merely involved in a bit of Good Samaritan, high-altitude, pinpoint bombing.
Arab perceptions of the West’s arrogance and aggression and the suspicion that the real agenda may simply be to punish Gaddafi on behalf of Israel rather than to liberate Libyans will ensure that Gaddafi finds being thrown to the ground by the Western Hercules an empowering experience.
In order to destroy this Antaeus, the West has to find some way to raise him aloft and slowly choke the life out of him. Ironically this was exactly what they were doing when the likes of Tony Blair went over to Tripoli to cozy up to the Gaddafis and sign oil deals and contracts for riot-control gear. Encouraging the kind of cultural and business links that thawing hard-line tyrannies find destabilizing, this also sent out the message that the Lion of the Desert with his Little Green Book of Bedouin wisdom and socialist platitudes was fast becoming a bloated Mubarak with the usual litter of designer-suited offspring grunting around Europe’s fleshpots.
Unfortunately, spurred on by a wish to emulate the neighbors, the rebels got their timing wrong and struck when the tyrant still had enough tribal and other loyalties to hang on and bounce back. Now the only thing left for the West is to keep throwing Gaddafi harmlessly to the ground. Even physically killing him, perhaps with one of those drones that seem particularly attracted to large noisy Islamic weddings, might not work. Another Herculean myth springs to mind—the Hydra and its ability to generate new heads. Turning an old man with sons to succeed him into a martyr is never a wise policy unless you’re prepared to cauterize every stump.
It seems that in this battle it is the West that is now being “held aloft” with its strength slowly ebbing away. This is almost literally true as NATO pilots fly high over a desert where democracy’s “nation-building” shoots fail to sprout. The Benghazi enclave may survive for a few months under the protective umbrella of Western carpet bombs and armor-piercing missiles, and we could even see a new state à la South Sudan, but the Gaddafis are not likely to forget and forgive. They’ll do their work at night and with knives if need be. There’s a proverb somewhere that says, “If you anger a Bedouin, best kill him.” A West without this kind of killer instinct should best avoid playing at Hercules.
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