By Simon Tisdall
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 20/03/2011
This war is personal now. Its primary, stated aim is to halt the regime's attacks on Libyan civilians. But David Cameron and other leaders have made it plain they also want the Libyan dictator removed from power. The US and its allies will not relent until they "get Gaddafi" and their nemesis is captured, jailed or dead.
This is a familiar scenario. When international disagreements deteriorate to the point when Washington feels it has no choice but to use massive military force, the person held most responsible is ruthlessly hunted down.
Manuel Noriega, Panama's mafia boss in the 1980s, was toppled in a US invasion in 1989 and ended up in a maximum security jail in Illinois. Slobodan Milosevic was put on trial in The Hague, where he died in custody. Saddam Hussein was dug out of a hole and sent to the gallows.
Gaddafi has no reason to expect that he will be treated any differently – a consideration that will certainly influence what he does next.
Cameron has offered high-minded justifications for the American-led "Operation Odyssey Dawn" air and missile strikes that Tripoli claims have killed more than 50 people. But his language also conveys a developing personal animus. Gaddafi had "lied to the international community" and broken his word on the ceasefire, the prime minister said. This was behaviour akin to that of a pupil caught cheating during prep. It just couldn't go on.
"He must stop what he is doing, brutalising his people ... We'll judge him by what he does," Cameron told the Commons on Friday. But in other remarks, he was more forthright. "Gaddafi needs to go," he said, and Britain would help him on his way.
Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, was similarly blunt. "It is our belief that if Mr Gaddafi loses the capacity to enforce his will through vastly superior armed forces, he simply will not be able to sustain his grip on the country," he said.
Nicolas Sarkozy, Cameron's co-hawk, has been busy swapping insults with Gaddafi, with all the appearance of a personal vendetta. After the Libyan leader said the French president had "gone mad", Sarkozy responded in kind, condemning Gaddafi's "murderous madness".
Sarkozy has also spoken of "targeted" actions – meaning assassination – should Gaddafi authorise the use of his stores of mustard gas or other WMD. Even normally measured Barack Obama has been getting hot under the collar about the man Ronald Reagan branded a "mad dog".
Taken by itself, such name-calling might not matter so much. But the larger, unavoidable conclusion is that capturing or killing Gaddafi has now become an end in itself for the western allies (though perhaps not their Arab coalition partners), and that the war will not be deemed "won" until this objective is attained.
The implications are serious. Now the missiles and B52s have begun their dreadful work, Gaddafi knows, if he didn't already, that he's in a fight to the finish – and for him, there may be no escape. His course of action in the coming days will be influenced by this realisation, and may be consequently more extreme and more aggressive than otherwise.
His defiant overnight statement, when he condemned the "crusader colonialism" afflicting his country, was clearly aimed at Arab and Muslim world opinion in particular, and the non-western world in general (major countries such as China, India, Brazil and Germany have not supported the intervention). Regime claims about mounting civilian deaths will play big there, Iraq-style. Gaddafi will press his propaganda advantage for all its worth.
The demonisation of Gaddafi has made it impossible for western leaders to countenance his continuation in power. But without the ground invasion they have pledged not to undertake, he could well survive as the overlord of western and southern Libya following a de facto partition, hostile, vengeful and highly dangerous.
This seems to be his plan. Far from giving up or drawing back, Gaddafi escalated the fighting around Benghazi at the weekend. Rather than abandon cities such as Zawiya, as Obama demanded, he is reportedly moving his troops into urban areas where they can less easily be targeted from the air. Meanwhile, his apparent willingness to use "human shields", his threats of retaliation across the Mediterranean area, and his designation of the whole of north Africa as a "war zone" raises the spectre of possible terrorist attacks and an alarming regression to his old ways.
Gaddafi has personalised this war, too. And he is not going to go quietly. Military superiority in the air will count for nothing if pro-regime army and air force units, militia and security forces, and civilian and tribal supporters who have remained loyal refuse to turn on him or kick him out of Tripoli. By its determination to "get Gaddafi", the west has made this a fight to the death – and death may be a long time in coming.