Obama cools to US military intervention in Libya

President Obama signals that, for now, he is wary of committing US military forces to help the Libyan opposition oust Muammar Qaddafi.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama listens to a question as he holds a news conference in Washington Friday.

President Obama on Friday signaled he has settled into a cautious approach to Libya that seeks the ouster of Col. Muammar Qaddafi, but which – at this point – does not include the use of US military force.

As outlined at a White House press conference, the president’s Libya policy in many ways reflects the pragmatic approach he has adopted towards the upheaval that has seized the Arab world from Yemen to Morocco.

The US stands with the people of the region and their yearning for greater freedoms, Mr. Obama says. But a variety of factors – from differing US interests to how embattled governments respond to the protests against them – mean the US will not treat each case the same. The one constant, the president suggests, is that the US will look for the predominant force for change to come from within.

At the press conference – called by the White House to address rising gas prices – Obama painted a picture of a slow but sure course on Libya aimed at pressuring the Libyan government as it battles the opposition.

“We are slowly tightening the noose around Qaddafi,” Obama said, citing the international sanctions imposed on the regime, the adoption of an arms embargo, and implementation by NATO of 24-hour overflight surveillance of Libyan military activity.

Obama's pragmatic approach

As for eventual military action to help bring about Qaddafi’s departure, Obama said he was weighing the options but suggested he is not yet as enthusiastic as some other Western countries, led by France and Great Britain, appear to be.

“You have to balance costs versus benefits” in deciding whether or not to use the military, he said. “I don’t take those decisions lightly.”

Obama stopped short of endorsing the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, but noted that NATO officials will meet on Tuesday to continue discussions that took place this week. In addition, he noted that he is sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the region next week, and she will meet with representatives of the Libyan opposition.

Obama’s pragmatism appears to be largely in sync with American public opinion. A number of recent polls show that while Americans are following the upheaval in the Middle East with considerable interest, they generally do not favor strong US intervention in the region – either to promote democracy or bring about “regime change” in Libya.

In one poll released this week by the Vision Critical/Angus Reid polling firm in New York, only 8 percent of respondents said they would support Iraq-style military action by the US in Libya.

Obama responds to critics

In his Friday press conference, Obama responded to mounting criticism in Washington for what some say has been a halting and at times contradictory approach to the turmoil in the Middle East. He insisted he has emphasized the same key principles across the board, including his conviction that people have the right to express their grievances to their government.

This process of change can be a great opportunity for the Middle East, he added, saying the US “should be on the side of those who want to seize this opportunity."

The president’s rhetoric did not reassure everyone. On a day when reports out of Saudi Arabia told of security forces using intimidation, tear gas, and even gunfire to discourage a planned “day of rage” protest, some human-rights organizations seized on Obama’s point that the US would respond differently to different countries.

The US should not overlook a crackdown on protesters just because it has “strategic and economic ties” to that country, the organization Human Rights First said.

Insisting the Saudis are “using many of the same crackdown techniques that the Obama administration recently condemned in the wake of uprisings in Egypt and Libya,” Brian Dooley, director of the organization’s human rights defenders program, says, “The United States cannot play favorites and give allies that stifle dissent a pass.”

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