Documents outed by WikiLeaks reveal US diplomats' "understated admiration" for embattled Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, according to an article in today's Washington Post.
According to the report, far from portraying the 68-year-old dictator as an out-of-touch egomaniac, US sources paint Gaddafi as a Macchiavellian figure whose "mastery of tactical maneuvering has kept him in power for nearly 40 years".
Writing in January 2009, soon after the US re-established diplomatic relations with the Arab state, former US ambassador to Tripoli Gene A. Cretz said that Gaddafi "remains intimately involved in the regime's most sensitive and critical portfolios". Cretz later described the dictator as "lucid and engaged" during a meeting with a US congressional delegation.
Since seizing power in a military coup in 1969, Gaddafi has successfully dominated the Libyan establishment, abolishing military offices above his own rank of colonel, and installing relatives and loyal members of his tribe in key positions.
The cables also lay bare some of Gaddafi's more bizarre bahaviour, including his close relationship with a voluptuous Ukrainian nurse, his phobia about flying over water and his fear of staying on the upper floors of hotels during his travels abroad.
In spite of the Libyan despot's eccentricities, Cretz characterises Gaddafi as exercising close personal control of all aspects of government, but warned:
"The reality is that no potential successor currently enjoys sufficient credibility in his own right to maintain that delicate equilibrium."
Gaddafi, wrote Cretz, "is the architect of his own gilded cage and cannot yet relinquish day-to-day decision-making, even if he wants to".
At the time of writing, Gaddafi's grip on power appears to be crumbling. The colonel is reported to holed up in a heavily fortified military compound. In a rambling address screened on national TV on Tuesday, he vowed to fight "to my last drop of blood".
Opposition forces are now said to control much of the country, including the port city of Benghazi, where unrest first broke out.