Obama vows a lesser US role in Libya, but new plan yet to be sealed

The Obama administration has hammered out a plan that puts NATO in the driver’s seat and gives a broader range of countries, including some Arab states, ‘political leadership’ of the Libya mission.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama answers question on the ongoing situation in Libya during his joint news conference with President of El Salvador Mauricio Funes at the National Palace in San Salvador, El Salvador, on March 22.

Determined to see Arab and Muslim countries involved in the oversight of continuing international military operations in Libya, the Obama administration has hammered out a plan with partners that puts NATO in the driver’s seat while enlarging the decisionmaking tent to include non-alliance countries.

But countries both in and out of NATO that are participating in the Libya operations have yet to sign off on the new command-and-control plan. That could mean that – despite President Obama’s insistence the United States will step down from its lead role “this week” – any final approval could stretch into next week, when the British government will host a summit of interested countries.

The hybrid arrangement calls for NATO to take control of military operations for the five-day-old effort in Libya. At the same time, however, the foreign ministers of a broader range of countries participating in the operation, including some Arab states, would assume “political leadership” of the mission.

RELATED: UN resolution on Libya

Britain says it is inviting both the Arab League and the African Union to its summit Tuesday.

The plan that Mr. Obama lobbied for was not yet signed and sealed on Wednesday, but already critics were lambasting it as “war by international committee” that was likely to result in Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi clinging to power.

Moreover, the plan will give the operation only the patina of Arab and Muslim involvement, critics say, since so far only Qatar has jumped at taking part among Arab states.

Even some foreign-policy experts who agree with Obama’s insistence on broadening the operation’s oversight – and on withdrawing the US from the lead role – say that working out the hybrid coalition’s nuts and bolts has diminished the mission’s effectiveness against Mr. Qaddafi’s offensives in the meantime.

“It is an absolute must for the US to back off into more of a supporting role and at the same time to make sure the command structure has a broad and particularly Arab dimension,” says Wayne White, a former State Department and US intelligence official who is now a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

At the same time, he adds, “It is quite conceivable that as the US steps back, the ability to fulfill the terms of Resolution 1973 [the United Nations Security Council resolution passed last week authorizing steps to protect Libyan civilians], not to mention Obama’s own ‘nonnegotiable’ demands of Qaddafi, will diminish.”

The US should be using the intelligence it is receiving from satellites and other sources to “pummel” forces loyal to Qaddafi, who continue to attack civilian populations in a number of cities, Mr. White says.

Instead, a “focus on passing the baton as fast as possible” is leading to a limited response to Qaddafi’s provocations, which he says “may actually have surprised Qaddafi by its weakness and prompted him to believe he could get away with much more.”

The administration’s official view is quite different. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said in recent interviews that the initial days of international military operations have laid the groundwork for implementing a no-fly zone, as authorized by the UN Security Council, and have helped “level the playing field” as airstrikes have targeted assets beyond Qaddafi’s air defenses, such as tanks.

On the other hand, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, already responsible for managing two wars and reluctant to see the US launch into a third, is seen as favoring as quick a transition as possible in terms of the US role. His has also been a voice against a liberal interpretation of Resolution 1973’s provisions that would mean more overt military activity on behalf of Libya’s rebels, some administration observers say.

In remarks Wednesday, Obama said the US will continue in the operation “in a support role,” contributing intelligence and jamming capabilities “and other assets that are unique to us.”

But failure by the international community to act decisively in Libya now, White says, could mean a stalemate and a long-term nightmare for Libya’s civilian population. Although he assumes the US will indeed pass on intelligence it is collecting on Qaddafi’s advances to the international coalition, he says the “golden opportunity” the US has to act on its own intelligence is about to close.

“There’s nothing more effective than US intelligence going directly to US combat forces [in this case fighter aircraft] and turning it into kinetic capability,” White says.

RELATED: UN resolution on Libya

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