PARIS (Reuters) - In the absence of decisive U.S. leadership, the West has taken so long to debate whether and how to help Libya’s anti-Gaddafi uprising that it may be too late.
President Barack Obama had many reasons to be cautious about getting involved in another military entanglement in a Muslim country just as he is trying to extricate the United States from traumatic ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Without a driving force in the White House, European states have so far been unable to summon up the unity to intervene on the other side of the Mediterranean, leaving Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi free to unleash a bloody counter-offensive.
Even if the U.N. Security Council adopts a resolution later on Thursday establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, some say it may not come in time to prevent a ground assault on Benghazi, the rebels’ chief remaining stronghold.
“A no-fly zone is a minimum. It’s certainly already too late,” former French Foreign Minister Berhard Kouchner told World Radio Switzerland this week.
But some analysts believe a Franco-British air operation, with symbolic Arab participation and U.S. logistical and intelligence support, could yet stop the fighting, prevent feared revenge massacres and force a negotiated outcome.
“It’s high time that Europeans stopped exporting their own responsibilities to Washington,” said Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and former director of the European Defense Agency.
“If the West fails on Libya, it will be primarily a European failure.”
Obama faces accusations in some quarters of having dithered while Libya has burned, despite his avowed support for pro-democracy movements that swept away autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and prompted a revolt last month against Gaddafi’s rule.
“In failing to support Arab campaigners for liberty, the (Obama) administration diminishes U.S. authority and dismays its allies,” Britain’s conservative The Times newspaper said in an editorial on Thursday.
While Libya is on a knife-edge, Bahrain is seething and Japan is reeling from a devastating earthquake and tsunami and fighting to avert a nuclear catastrophe, the president is about to set off for a trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.
With key security policymakers divided, Obama has mostly shunned the limelight rather than donning the mantle of “leader of the Free World” to rally support for intervention.
He has called for Gaddafi to go, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has backed a no-fly zone, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been vocally reluctant to commit overstretched armed forces to another mission in the Muslim world.
“When Secretary Gates issues warnings about the implications of a no fly zone in terms of an actual long-term U.S. commitment he is going to be listened to very carefully,” said Dana Allin, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“The idea that an international community or the United States can make judgments and intervene on a more timely basis to have prevented, for example, the progress that Gaddafi forces have made in the past week or days is just politically unrealistic,” Allin said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican advocate of an activist foreign policy, suggested on Wednesday that Obama had lacked courage.
“One test in foreign policy -- at least be as bold as the French,” Graham, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, when it comes to Libya we’re failing that test.”
Some analysts see Western divisions over what to do about Libya as reminiscent of the indecision and recriminations at the outbreak of wars in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, when it took years to mount a decisive intervention to stop the killing.
Michael Cox, professor of politics and an expert on the United States at the London School of Economics, said Obama may be trying to hand responsibility to the Europeans for what many in Washington see as Europe’s “backyard.”
But history showed that without U.S. leadership, Europe was unlikely to act decisively, he said.
“He doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy. After some fairly active early diplomacy, notably in Egypt, there are signs of the U.S. losing its grip on events,” Cox said, citing Saudi military intervention to back a crackdown on protests in Bahrain.
Public intellectuals in France have goaded President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was late to embrace change in Tunisia and Egypt, into recognizing the Libyan opposition and pressing for targeted air strikes and a no-fly zone against Gaddafi’s forces.
More active U.S. leadership might have helped Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron overcome opposition within the European Union -- chiefly from Germany and Italy -- to the use of air power to stop Gaddafi’s offensive.
But Witney said a Franco-British operation to enforce a no-fly zone would be feasible even without using southern Italian air bases, which would greatly facilitate the action.
Germany is squeamish about the use of force due to its own history and recent experience in Afghanistan, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition is keen to avoid scaring voters before a key regional election on March 27.
Italy has vast investments in Libya, is heavy dependent on its oil and gas, and had close ties before the uprising.
It has ruled out any military action and its oil major, Eni, has called for an end to European sanctions, becoming the first western firm to try to rebuild bridges with Gaddafi.
Cameron’s own cabinet has been unequally enthusiastic about military action, and lawmakers from his Conservative party have asked critical questions in parliament about the risks.
Some analysts fear that only a further deterioration of the situation on the ground, heightening a humanitarian crisis in Libya, may spur the West reluctantly into military intervention.
additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London and Stephanie Nebahay in Geneva; editing by Ralph Boulton