Obama treading cautiously in Libya

US President Barack Obama has done his best to keep his distance from the Franco-British-led effort to enforce UN Security Council resolution 1973 mandating the use of airpower to end attacks by Muammar Gadhafi’s armed forces on Libyan cities under rebel control. Obama took weeks to lend his support to this effort and he was in Brasilia rather than Paris when leaders from 22 countries met to decide how to proceed with the Libyan operation.

The launch of the mission on Saturday afternoon was almost too late. Gadhafi’s armour and troops had conquered Zawiya, encircled Misrata and Ajdabiya and were entering Benghazi, Libya’s second city and the epicentre of the rebellion. Tens of thousands of civilians were fleeing eastwards towards the Egyptian border.

It took Obama until March 15 to agree to support a UN resolution legitimising the use of force, a demand raised by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron three weeks earlier.

Wait and watch

Obama continued to hesitate after the Arab League called for ‘humanitarian’ military intervention. The ‘New York Times’ reported that he only made the shift from opposing to favouring action when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was convinced that this was the right course by Samantha Power, a senior security aide, and UN ambassador Susan Rice.

Obama’s male advisors, defence secretary Robert Gates and national security chief Thomas Donilon, opposed action and were, partly, responsible for Obama’s protracted procrastination.

Once convinced to commit, Obama insisted on broadening and boosting the resolution by calling not just for a no-fly zone but also for military action against Gadhafi’s planes, tanks and ground forces attacking rebel-controlled cities. Obama called for Gadhafi’s forces to ceasefire, pull back from rebel held cities, and allow electricity, water and humanitarian supplies to reach these cities. Even as US cruise missiles were striking Libya’s radar and air defence capabilities, Obama was keeping a low profile.

Hillary Clinton insisted, “We did not lead this.” She was, in theory, correct. French planes made the first strikes. But the Pentagon admitted the US has the most assets in the region, was on the ‘leading edge’ of the operation and deployed most of the 112 cruise missiles that had flown to their targets in Libya. For the time being, General Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command, is in-charge but he will be handing over to a ‘coalition’ commander soon.

Obama was persuaded to go along with France and Britain because he could not risk being blamed if Gadhafi massacred men, women and children, as he had threatened to do when he said his forces would enter every home to stamp out the rebellion. While military action is risky, no military action could produce another Rwanda, Bosnia, or Kosovo. This was a risk Sarkozy, Cameron, and, eventually, Obama could not take.

Obama has a host of good reasons to avoid military entanglement in Libya. The US has a massive budget deficit and does not want to spend more money on warfare than it is already investing in faltering campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon claims the US military is fully stretched and cannot become engaged in another conflict. Anti-US sentiment is growing in Afghanistan and Pakistan due to civilian deaths from US air and drone strikes.

Sixty per cent of US citizens oppose US action in Libya which was subjected to a controversial air raid by the Republican Reagan administration in 1986. This attack was exploited by Gadhafi as an example of US neo-colonialism and deepened Arab antagonism toward the US. Since then anti-US sentiment in the Arab world has grown exponentially due to Israel’s wars on Palestinians and Lebanese, the 1991 and 2003 US wars on Iraq, the US war on Afghanistan, and US backing for autocratic Arab rulers, two of whom have been overthrown by democratic movements.

An Arab commentator pointed out that, above all, Obama wants to be seen both at home and abroad as the ‘anti-Bush’, a president who, unlike the widely hated George W Bush, does not take unilateral action or drag others into unsavoury military adventures. Obama has been dragged into the Libyan operation by US allies and not the other way round. Finally, no one knows how the Libyan action will develop.

There is no clear objective or time frame. The hope is that Gadhafi will be killed, compelled to step down, or overthrown by his inner circle. But it is not known if the rebels, who claim to be democrats, will, ultimately triumph as the democrats have done in Tunisia and Egypt. If Gadhafi remains, Libya could be split between loyalists and rebels.
All these factors could very well cause Obama to seek an early end to the operation before the Gadhafi problem is resolved.

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