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Will Libya stalemate force US out of its back-seat role?

Pressure rises on the Obama administration to take action in Libya. Officials weigh the humanitarian costs of holding back against the economic and political costs of action.

By Staff writer / April 6, 2011

Libyans demonstrate against Muammar Qaddafi in Benghazi, Libya, on April 6. As policymakers and experts conclude that a drawn-out war is the worst of all possibilities for the Libyan people, pressure mounts on the Obama administration to take a more active role in Libya.

Maurizio Gambarini / dpa / Newscom

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Washington

As the Libya conflict appears to settle into a potentially protracted stalemate, the memory of President Obama’s demand that Muammar Qaddafi step down from power – essentially a call for regime change – is feeding a debate over what the president will or should do now to influence the outcome.

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A growing number of policymakers and regional experts are concluding that a drawn-out war in the midst of a turbulent Middle East would be the worst of all possibilities. And as they do, doubts are mounting over the Obama administration’s decision to take – or at least try to take – a back-seat role among international powers involved in Libya.

Even as Libya’s rebels retreat from gains made last week and Colonel Qaddafi shows no signs of budging from his Tripoli stronghold, a debate builds over what the US should do. One side says Obama is in tune with a majority of Americans who may support the idea of humanitarian intervention, yet who are leery of any deeper involvement of the US in Libya.

On the other are critics who think America’s leadership role in the world requires more than a wait-and-see approach to crises, especially when key US national interests are at stake.

“I assert that if we had called and declared a no-fly zone early on, three or four weeks ago, Qaddafi would not be in power today,” says Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Having failed to do that – and having pulled US airpower from the fight before the battle was won, he adds – Obama should now find a way to arm the rebels, perhaps through third parties.

The US should also join France and Italy in recognizing the rebels’ transitional national council as Libya’s legitimate government, he says.

The humanitarian costs of coalition-building

Speaking at a Monitor breakfast in Washington Wednesday, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Obama’s priority on building a multinational coalition before taking action gave Qaddafi time to organize his forces.

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