Obama wants Qaddafi out of Libya, but what is he ready to do?

Amid calls for a no-fly zone, Obama says a wide range of options are being discussed to deal with Libya. Analysts say he is in no hurry to use force, especially not unilaterally, to oust Qaddafi.

Hussein Malla/AP
An anti-Qaddafi rebel runs away as smoke rises following an air strike by Libyan warplanes near a checkpoint of the anti-Libyan Leader Muammar Qaddafi rebels, in the oil town of Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya, Monday, March 7. US President Obama said Monday that there continues to be 'unacceptable' violence in Libya, and that NATO allies are discussing a wide range of options, including potential military measures.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

President Obama says he wants Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi out.

But he’s also made it clear he’s not about to launch anything like George W. Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, which rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein, or even like Ronald Reagan’s bombardment of Tripoli in 1986 – no matter how many senators and neoconservatives urge him toward more forceful action. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph gave the wrong year for Reagan's action against Tripoli.]

Mr. Obama, who is waiting for a list of options he ordered up (from the Pentagon in particular) last week, said Monday that there continues to be "unacceptable" violence in Libya, and that NATO allies are discussing a wide range of options, including potential military measures. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will join NATO defense ministers Thursday in Brussels to discuss international options in the crisis, including the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone.

But in the meantime, the president has given enough pointers to suggest how any eventual US intervention would be oriented: It would be international in scope – no go-it-alone action – and it is likely to be devised so that Africans and Muslims, and preferably Libyans themselves, were at the vanguard of any steps aimed at Qaddafi.

“If you had to sum up in a few words Obama’s vision of international intervention, it would be ‘multilateral if we can, unilateral only if we must, and the military should not be the first option,’ ” says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

“He’s also distinguishing between a vital national interest, and what is nice to have, and it is hard to see how … we have a vital national interest in Libya,” Mr. Korb says.

Obama critics including John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations under President Bush, fault the president for at best offering some rhetoric on the situation – Obama’s statement Thursday, for example, that Qaddafi has lost legitimacy and must relinquish power – and for ceding leadership of the international effort against Qaddafi to the British, French, and even (gasp!) UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Wary of Al Qaeda narrative

Obama and administration officials have made it clear that one of the most positive aspects they see in the successful antiregime movements in the region – in Tunisia and Egypt – is that the populations in those countries made the changes happen themselves and in that sense “owned” them (Obama mentioned this publicly in his comments Thursday).

Another concern for the administration is that any international military intervention in Libya might be construed by the regional population as another Western (or worse, American) takeover of an oil-producing Muslim country – a view that would fit nicely into the Al Qaeda narrative.

A number of US senators, including John McCain (R) of Arizona, Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, and John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, continued to call over the weekend for either a no-fly zone or other direct action against Qaddafi. Senator Kerry has suggested the US could bomb Qaddafi-controlled airstrips and render them useless.

But such actions would seem, at least for the moment, to go against Obama’s conception of military action as a last-resort option to be used only to address a vital national interest.

Given those limitations, it is not clear that the US – or the international community – will move very far beyond where it is already, with one sanctions resolution against the Qaddafi regime approved by the UN Security Council, and a focus on addressing Libya’s humanitarian crisis.

In a conference call with reporters Monday, the US ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, said the Alliance is ramping up aerial surveillance of Libya via AWACs to a 24/7 operation, and that the international priority in the coming days will remain the humanitarian crisis brewing on Libya’s borders.

“We’re looking at all the options out there … but the most immediate [focus] is, how can NATO support the humanitarian effort that is ongoing,” Ambassador Daalder says.

NATO defense ministers to meet

Implementation of a no-fly zone and enforcement of the Security Council-mandated arms embargo on the Qaddafi regime are very likely to be on the agenda when NATO defense ministers meet Thursday, he says. But he adds that NATO would almost certainly want the Security Council to pass another resolution calling for a no-fly zone – a step many UN experts say China and Russia would almost certainly oppose, at least for now.

“All of us want a Security Council resolution” if a no-fly zone is to be enforced, Daalder says. “That’s pretty clear.”

But the US ambassador adds that NATO’s weekend surveillance of Libya suggests that the regime’s antirebel air activity has been decreasing – a trend that may have been prompted by the international talk of imposing a no-fly zone, he says. There were, nevertheless, reports Monday of some air strikes on rebel forces outside the oil city of Ras Lanuf with an unknown number of casualties.

IN PICTURES: Qaddafi: A look back

On the other hand, decreased aerial attacks by the Qaddafi regime could also doom the imposition of a no-fly zone, since both Russia and China have suggested they would only consider such a measure if events on the ground in Libya warranted it.

All of which means that, despite Obama’s preferences to the contrary, Qaddafi might still be in power six months or a year from now, says American Progress’s Korb.

“Don’t forget that Qaddafi bombed Americans in Berlin, and brought an American plane down, and then the Bush administration reestablished diplomatic relations with him,” he says.

And of course arguments can be made now that the Bush administration’s difficult but pragmatic decision to swallow hard and reopen links to Qaddafi was fortuitous, since it was based on the Libyan leader’s decision to give up his WMD programs.

Looking ahead, Korb says he can foresee a scenario where international action against Qaddafi months from now is focused on the war-crimes investigation launched just last week. “This could follow other cases [including several in Africa],” he says, “where you rely on the International Criminal Court to go after them.”

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