David Ignatius
Opinion writer April 1, 2011

Col. Moammar Gaddafi has always depended on one strategic resource to hold his loopy government together, and that’s cash. But as the U.N.-backed coalition tightens its squeeze, Gaddafi is slowly running out of money — and his inner circle is showing early signs of collapse.

White House officials described a pressure campaign that is seizing Gaddafi’s assets, pounding his military and establishing covert links with both the rebels and members of his government. As this chokehold tightens, U.S. officials believe that Gaddafi’s regime is likely to implode around him or he’ll be forced to flee.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

This Libya strategy is based on hopes and expectations, rather than a detailed endgame. And in that sense, it still lacks the kind of strategic clarity that President Obama’s critics would like to see. But compared with the other tempests swirling through the Middle East — in Syria and Yemen, especially — this one at least seems to be heading in the right direction.

The clearest sign that the squeeze is working was the defection Wednesday of Musa Kusa, Libya’s foreign minister and longtime intelligence chief for Gaddafi. He fled to Britain after what an intelligence source said was a ruse in which Kusa claimed to be heading to Tunisia to make a secret sale of refined oil products. The cover story illustrates Gaddafi’s desperate need for funds.

U.S. officials say that many others in the Gaddafi entourage have been in recent contact with the United States or its allies. These include the current intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, who helped safeguard the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli in February, and other Cabinet ministers. The United States has also had indirect contact with members of Gaddafi’s family, who are said to be unhappy with events and looking for a way out.

With Kusa’s flight, the trickle of defections may turn into a flood. Ali Abdussalm Treki, a former foreign minister, fled to Egypt Thursday. One other key cabinet official was said to be negotiating the details of his departure. “I belong to you now; tell me what to do,” this cabinet member is said to have told an intermediary.

The CIA is sending covert teams into Libya to help undermine Gaddafi further. At present there are only several dozen operatives, including full-time case officers from the Special Activities Division, which manages covert actions, supplemented by former officers, known internally as “cadres,” who are on direct contract to the agency. Their tasks include providing clandestine communications links for the Libyan opposition, contacting and assessing the rebels, and providing money and other assistance to Libyans to break with Gaddafi.

The intelligence teams may also assist NATO forces in targeting remaining nodes of Gaddafi’s military, such as ammunition dumps, command-and-control centers, and tanks and armor. On Wednesday, a coordinated air assault is said to have obliterated a Libyan tank column on the highway near Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. The agency has some experience in Libya thanks to previous covert actions there, including one code-named “Sprint” some years ago.

An unpleasant but necessary task ahead is providing alternative sources of money to the tribal leaders Gaddafi has bribed over the 40 years of his rule, including those of his own tribe, the Gaddafah. If this can be done, the Libyan leader’s last strong pillars of support will fall away.

A measure of Libya’s inherent weakness came from Kusa himself, who is said to have told CIA officers several years ago, after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, how much more vulnerable Libya was to attack. “We are a [expletive] beach!” he supposedly remarked.

As in Iraq, the real challenge in Libya will be assembling a stable successor government. U.S. officials expect that this time, the operation will be overseen by the United Nations and its special representative for Libya, Abdul-Illah Khatib, a Jordanian diplomat. His immediate task is to coordinate contacts between the rebels and the regime. Arab cover is also coming from Qatar, which will host the next meeting of the “contact group” overseeing the anti-Gaddafi operation.

A lot of things could still go wrong. When backed into corners in the past, Gaddafi has used terrorism to fight back. He is said to have chemical weapons and perhaps other unconventional tools. But his machine needs cash, and an intelligence source said that his bankroll will last him another two to three months. From this financial perspective, Gaddafi could be described as a dictator in liquidation.

davidignatius@washpost.com