It is interesting to watch the unfolding drama in Libya. I think the situation there illustrates two points that I will discuss in this post.
First, a dedicated autocrat can actually win. I mentioned this a few weeks ago in this blog, that as long as an autocrat is able to maintain the loyalty of his security apparatus, the chance of a successful regime transition is very low. Qaddafi added another twist to this argument: Even though he has very unreliable mercenaries that are present only the for money, he can still win as long as he manages to destroy any possible source of opposition power.
Qaddafi was successful by going against the grain. Autocrats usually able to stay in power by cajoling interest groups (e.g. religious leaders, business interests, military, and any strong organized political organizations). Once they are in power, autocrats have two options: either try to keep these constituents happy and juggle the interests of all of them or attempt to insert themselves into the power structure of the strongest organization and dismantle the normal channels of power.
Most autocrats pick the first option, as they are aware that even their power is limited. They cannot ensure complete loyalty of their original power-base and they are aware that their power-base is not strong enough to completely dominate the state. Those with strong personalities picks the second option.
Qaddafi, however, picked neither option. He dismantled his military, split them into competing units, while at the same time decentralizing the state. Such action caused a controlled chaos: nobody was sure who in control, and as a result, had to rely on the only stable player, the only constant among the sea of variables: Qaddafi himself. This decentralization caused the revolt to be difficult to quash, but at the same time, the revolt was so disorganized that in the long-run, Qaddafi and his unreliable mercenaries (but well paid, so they are loyal, at least before any setback) will likely subdue the disorganized opposition.
Nevertheless, Qaddafi overplayed his hand when this crisis started. I think he did not expect the international coalition to form against him: he believed correctly that Obama was not interested in joining the fray. Egypt was a major test-case. It was true that Obama demanded Mubarak to start the transition process "right now." But then Obama went back to business as usual. It took 18 days of constant demonstration for Mubarak to resign and that is only because the pressure from the army was too strong in the end. Bahrain confirmed it: as long as you have a "friendly" government, the United States will not lift a finger to assist the protesters. After all, Qaddafi had renounced terrorism, gave up his nukes, paid up the Lockerbie victims, and he also has oil. Furthermore, he knew that the Saudis were displeased with how Obama bungled Mubarak's resignation, and that other countries in the region did not want to capitulate to their oppositions, which led to the inevitable conclusion that Arab leaders would not protest against his actions.
What Qaddafi didn't realize was that his strategy backfired. He could not rely on the army as they were fragmented and poorly equipped. Because it took time to bring in mercenaries, (haggled with them on the payments, etc.), he lost precious time, allowing the rebels to close in Tripoli. By that time, he also had huge PR problems, that his mercenaries were uncontrollable and committing lots of human rights abuses. His press briefings reminded people of the infamous "Comical Ali."
The French, thinking that he was going down in short future, recognized the rebels. But Qaddafi soon regained momentum on the ground, recapturing cities that were seized by the rebels. And when the French and other Europeans countries, including the European Parliament, saw that he was going to stay in power after all, they had to avoid a volte-face. They had to support the rebels, as a victorious Qaddafi would want payback. Their pressure, including from the Arabs wishing to make them the fall guy, finally forced Obama to intervene.
Second, Obama's leadership is completely lacking in this crisis. I have mentioned it often and I will mention it again. The Nobel Peace Prize Winner's lack of empathy, his zen-like attitude in observing the carnage in the Middle East is simply disturbing. It is true that you cannot rush into battle, that it is better to have a huge international coalition supporting you. Obama's problem, however, lies in his inactivity: vague answers/speeches that would make people think that the situation was way above his league. There was a jarring contrast between his lofty Cairo speech on June 4, 2009 and his action throughout the Middle East Revolution.
So what could Obama have done differently? First, in case of Mubarak, behind-the-scene dealings might have done a much better job in persuading him to concede and to announce some reforms, especially when the rumbling started a few days after the successful Tunisian Revolution. Keep in mind that it was after Mubarak's security apparatus decided to violently attack the demonstrators, then pulled back in disarray, that the momentum in demanding Mubarak's resignation started. At that point, Obama and his cabinet had to work in tandem - having several voices advocating different policy prescriptions was bad for the US credibility.
Then, Obama has to walk the talk: he already told Mubarak that the transition had to began "right now" and then he had to follow through with that. Obama's inability to follow his talk with action creates a huge crisis of confidence, that the democracy proponents were unsure about Obama'sObama's statement of support to the opposition in Iran.
It is too early to say whether the revolution in the Middle East is successful. One thing is clear is that thanks to Obama, the United States cannot really be sure whether the new regimes, or even its old allies in the Middle East, will be friendly to the United States when the dust settles.