WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Wary of a new foreign entanglement, President Barack Obama is taking a cautious approach on a no-fly zone over Libya that is leaving him open to charges of dithering as Libyan rebels lose ground.
Obama’s deliberative tone on the issue reflects his desire for international cohesion and his determination that U.S. forces should only be sent into battle when vital national security interests are at stake.
“Any time I send the United States forces into a potentially hostile situation, there are risks involved and there are consequences. And it is my job as president to make sure that we have considered all those risks,” Obama told a news conference last Friday.
Obama faces harsh budgetary pressures that must be considered in any military option. He is trying to wind down the multibillion-dollar U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and is struggling to contain a $1.4 trillion budget deficit.
The Democrat who won the elections in 2008 by repeatedly criticizing his Republican predecessor’s military adventures is loathe to repeat what he considers President George W. Bush’s mistakes as he prepares to ask Americans for a second term in 2012.
While Britain and France have called for a no-fly zone, Obama has taken no public position on the subject, saying the issue should be debated by the United Nations.
“We would look to the U.N. as a forum for evaluating that option,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
This comes as Libyan rebels appear to be close to losing their battle with forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
In a sign that Obama is being advised against a no-fly zone, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, one of the president’s closest advisers, has expressed wariness about the option, saying it would require “a big operation in a big country.”
Instead, the White House is talking up an option that would require no U.S. military involvement, seeking authority to use seized Gaddafi assets to funnel to the Libyan rebels.
Obama is getting little pressure from war-weary Americans themselves to get more deeply involved in Libya. Most people want him to get the U.S. economy on a firmer footing and do something about rising gasoline prices.
“It’s a potential quagmire and it’s just not something Americans are concerned about right now. They’re much more concerned about jobs and the economy right now,” said Cliff Young, a pollster for the Ipsos polling firm.
Some Democrats and Republicans are prodding Obama to move on a no-fly zone. They point to President Bill Clinton’s successful employment of the tactic in the 1990s Bosnian war as an example of why it would work in Libya.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist who advised Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, said he backs a no-fly zone because it is a moral issue, protecting the Libyan people from repression.
It is not a good excuse to say that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone badly so therefore the United States should not act in Libya, he said.
“The fact that we blundered into bad policy doesn’t mean that we should eschew good policy,” Shrum said.
On the flip side, Obama faces potential political risks for doing nothing beyond the steps he has taken already, such as economic sanctions and appeals for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to leave power.
“If he doesn’t go in and Gaddafi survives, Obama is going to get a share of the blame,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.
But his political opponents may be giving him some degree of cover for his cautious approach.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012, said in Chicago on Monday that Obama should be careful in dealing with Libya.
“I think we need to be cautious about being quick on the trigger,” Barbour said.