Analysis: Obama faces no good choices over Libya

WASHINGTON Tue Mar 8, 2011 1:28pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama may have told Muammar Gaddafi his time is up but the real question is whether U.S. rhetoric will be matched by action forceful enough to get the Libyan leader to relinquish power.

That looks doubtful for now as Obama faces "damned if he does, damned if he doesn't" options that range from imposing a no-fly zone over Libya to arming the rebels. None is guaranteed to push out Gaddafi or ensure stability in North Africa.

Aides insist Obama's cautious approach is helping marshal international opposition to Gaddafi, who has launched fierce counterattacks on opponents seeking to end his 41-year rule.

Obama's critics, mostly Republican politicians and conservative pundits, accuse him of failing to lead and say he could miss a chance to oust an entrenched dictator who has been a thorn in Washington's side for decades.

"Whatever you do, the risks are great," said Stephen Grand, an expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. "But you can't just walk into a civil war and expect to stop it ... Still, doing nothing is not a viable alternative."

Accounts of ragtag rebels and civilians being assaulted by Gaddafi's loyalists, along with fears of a humanitarian crisis, make for compelling reasons for Obama to act -- not least because the last remaining superpower could be denounced for staying on the sidelines.

But the costs of any major intervention are high for a president trying to wind down wars in two Muslim countries while confronting the domestic priorities of jobs and economic recovery that are crucial to his 2012 re-election chances.

That could be reason enough to avoid any hasty response.

Obama must also be mindful of inflaming tensions in the oil-producing Middle East or undermining relations with Europe, the Arab world and the United Nations. How events in Libya play out have implications for the global economy, U.S. prestige and Obama's own foreign policy legacy.

TOUGH WORDS, LIMITED ACTION

When the uprising erupted last month and Gaddafi responded with violence, Obama was reluctant to call outright for his ouster until U.S. citizens were safely evacuated from Libya.

Obama and his top aides have since spoken out strongly for Gaddafi to step down -- coupling that with sanctions and an asset freeze -- and have started talking openly about some of the specific military options under consideration.

But with the White House still crafting its strategy, the risk is that a defiant Gaddafi will consolidate his grip and hunker down for a protracted civil war.

"The president made a big mistake when he said 'Gaddafi must go' when he had no idea how to make him go," said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former deputy national security advisor under Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. "That depreciates the value of an American leader's words."

Obama has come under growing pressure from some lawmakers, including fellow Democrats, for a more aggressive response amid a debate on U.S. intervention -- a topic that traditionally cuts across party lines.

Obama's spokesman Jay Carney spoke on Monday of a sense of urgency but said: "We need to not get ahead of ourselves in terms of the options we're pursuing."

The administration has made clear it will not be rushed into decisions that could draw the U.S. military, already working to extricate itself from Iraq and still bogged down in Afghanistan, into a new war that could fuel anti-Americanism.

The dilemma is that the longer it takes to decide on a course of action with Washington's allies, the more blood could be spilled in Libya and the more Obama could face criticism for acting too slowly to avert a humanitarian disaster.

At the same time, failure to stem the turmoil could sustain upward pressure on oil prices already driven higher as upheaval sweeps the broader Middle East.

MILITARY OPTIONS

Even with Washington's assertion that all options remain on the table, Obama's room to maneuver appears limited.

An idea pushed by some lawmakers is a "no-fly" zone -- patrolled by Western warplanes in the style used in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and against Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- to stop Gaddafi's aircraft from targeting rebels and their supporters.

But even as Britain and France seek a no-fly resolution at the United Nations, U.S. officials like Defense Secretary Robert Gates have expressed misgivings. Russia and China could use their U.N. veto power to block the measure.

Sending ground troops is also an option but is considered unfeasible for a president who took office vowing to end the war in Iraq and who wants to avoid feeding into al Qaeda's narrative of Western powers grabbing Arab oil.

The U.S. hope is still that a popular democratic movement will coalesce in Libya as it did to topple rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, even though Gaddafi has struck back more violently.

U.S. military planners will also be wary because of searing memories of how a humanitarian mission in Somalia went wrong during the Clinton era, with soldiers' bodies dragged through the streets after a firefight.

There have been mixed messages about the logistics and legality of arming the rebels but intelligence officials say so little is known about the opposition groups and their leaders that it would be unwise, for now, to send them weapons.

Obama also has made clear he will not act militarily without broad international support. Since taking office in early 2009, he has signaled a break with what was perceived as Bush's go-it-alone approach in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Critics say a failure to deal decisively with Libya could stain Obama's record, especially if Gaddafi prolongs his rule in a bloody stalemate.

"Prudence is one thing," said Michael Singh, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies and a Bush-era Middle East adviser. "But the administration can't afford to be left behind by events."

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by John O'Callaghan and John Whitesides.)

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Comments (7)
vard3 wrote:
The talk of intervention just to oust Gadaffi because the libyans are in revolt does not make sense. Then the same principle has to be applied in Yemen or Bahrain or Oman.

We should leave the Libyans to their own devices and to learn from their own mistakes. Just like in previous years when the dictaors were supported to get rid of their opposition.

Removing Gadaffi does not mean a pro-western govt. will emerge. No one knows what will emerge.

Mar 08, 2011 4:14pm EST  --  Report as abuse
neahkahnie wrote:
There are those who may want us to go to war. These are the same people who are screaming about reducing the deficit. How you square those two are interesting. We are currently involved in two wars, one active and one, for us, almost over. Billions more for another war?
Lybia has not attacked us. Regan made the statement for us after the Pan Am Flight. Now figure this, invading a Muslim nation in the Middle East/N. Africa for no reason other than some war hawks and anderson Cooper of A/C 358 1/2 acting like a later day W.R. Hearst of 1898. It’s all about the PRICE of oil. If we were so concerned about these horrible dictators, we should have invaded at least 6 African nations in the sub-Sahara region as well as Burma and Thailand. We are selective because it’s fun to bash the Muslims AND because they have oil. Stay away. If we must go to war, let the leaders in the Senate who want war so much, lead a volunteer force like the Lincoln Brigade in 1936 in Spain. McCain and Kerry can be the generals.

Mar 08, 2011 4:27pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Thucydides wrote:
This could all be reduced to a simple exercise in pursuing our principled interests in the war on terror: After 10 years, $1 trillion, ~15,000 dead, ~35,000 wounded – all in the name of a campaign against terrorism, you’d think it would be a no-brainer to extend that effort just a wee-bit and go get that known terrorist Gaddafi for state-sponsored terrorism in the Lockerbie bombing. Forget every other issue with Libya – just go get Gaddafi and let the rest sort itself out. If not, explain to the men at Arlington what they died for.

Mar 08, 2011 4:28pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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