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Op-Ed

Kadafi's port in the storm

If he's ousted, the Libyan strongman may find that all roads lead to Rome.

March 11, 2011|By Henri J. Barkey

Col. Moammar Kadafi and his family must be busily looking for a new abode, just like his neighbors Zine el Abidine ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak had to do recently. Where can the colonel go? Over the years he has cultivated, funded, entertained and lavished presents and prizes on many world leaders. Someone will surely spare him a place to pitch the tent he always travels with.

Kadafi may not be a terribly exacting person, but he does have some minimum requirements: a relatively cheap piece of land for his tent, access to water, electricity and free Wi-Fi. With the international community and his own people searching for his stashed funds, he cannot afford expensive locations. And his benefactor must be trustworthy and unlikely to rescind his refuge by sending him packing back to Libya where the "cockroaches," as he has called his opposition, can put him on trial.

So what are his options? Zimbabwe immediately comes to mind. The weather is perfect. President Robert Mugabe can be relied on to snub and stand up to the international community. But Mugabe is old and is unpopular at home. In fact, inspired by events in the Middle East, Zimbabweans are also beginning to clamor for rights.

Saudi Arabia is another good choice, but only on paper. It has a desert climate, and people there have lots of experience with tents and a history of accommodating fallen dictators, such as the Ugandan Idi Amin. The colonel's very good friend Ben Ali, after plunging into a stroke-induced coma, is presumably enjoying the free and good healthcare Saudi Arabia is known for. The problem is that Kadafi once tried to have the Saudi king killed; the latter may still be bearing a grudge.

Turkey is another possibility. Only this past December, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was awarded the Kadafi Human Rights Prize. Erdogan, who had called on Mubarak to heed the will of his people, has shied away from doing so with Kadafi. This is a true friend; it also helps, of course, to have thousands of Turkish workers trapped in Libya as potential hostages.

But Turkey is unreliable. Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir was disinvited as a guest by the Turks after Europeans and Americans raised objections even though Erdogan had vouched that Darfur was genocide free. Kadafi may also face the added embarrassment that Erdogan, to look good to the outside world, may kick him out together with the human rights prize; with airlines charging for excess baggage these days, Kadafi cannot afford to incur any additional luggage charges.

Venezuela, ruled by the indomitable Hugo Chavez, has already been rumored as a destination. Chavez stands by his friends — just ask Fidel. The Venezuelan would relish the opportunity provided by the colonel's presence to thumb his nose at "the empire" (the U.S.).

But Chavez comes with two peculiar problems. First is his penchant for the color red. He wears red shirts, red berets and his followers live in a sea of red. This would clearly clash with the colonel's tastes. Have you ever seen Kadafi wear anything but dull desert brown or pale green? The other problem is that Chavez keeps warning that the empire may invade Venezuela (he may be genuinely wishing so). Kadafi is not to be outdone when it comes to believing conspiracy theories and therefore may worry about the prospect.

This leaves Kadafi only one place, Silvio Berlusconi's Italy. Berlusconi has been a best friend who seems to think that the colonel's time is not up yet. In 2008, Berlusconi did promise $5 billion in reparations for Italy's decades-long occupation of Libya. Berlusconi has style, wonderful friends (many very young and even of North African ancestry). Berlusconi is not going anywhere; he bats away scandals as if they were flies (maybe even cockroaches). Kadafi and certainly his son Saadi would feel very comfortable there. Saadi even dabbled in Italian soccer, buying one of the premier league teams.

It is settled then. All roads lead to Rome.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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