Obama Must Define Goals for US in Libya

Monday, 21 Mar 2011 01:16 PM

By Judith Miller

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America’s talk about Libya dramatically shifted this weekend from diplomacy to war, from the corridors of the Arab League and United Nations to the Pentagon briefing room.

Debate over resolutions was replaced by the recitation of battlefield statistics by Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, the left side of his chest resplendent with medals and ribbons. Reporting that a no-fly zone was now in place after a single day of bombing, Gortney spoke of the 124 Tomahawk strikes against Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s air defenses — his “fixed” SA-2’s, 3’s, 5’s, about America’s bombing of his major air base and its strikes against his ground forces headed to Benghazi.

But amid the familiar battle-speak about weapon-to-target ratios and “BHA’s” — “bomb hit assessments” — one could easily forget that the core of America’s effort against Libya has been and remains political.

And in this all-important battlefield, Obama’s female appointees have had the grit.

There may be no battle jewelry on their chests, but were it not for Secretary Hillary Clinton, White House adviser Samantha Powers, and United Nations envoy Susan Rice, the White House males would still be debating whether and how best to stop Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people.

According to reports published in the “Cable” and The New York Times, it was Clinton, Powers, and Rice who persuaded President Obama that the world would hold America responsible, as it did in Rwanda, for ignoring the massacre of civilians. He would also be blamed, they privately warned him, for having declared that Gadhafi must go, but then done nothing to ensure such an outcome, a passivity that enabled his critics to paint him as weak and feckless.

It is also easy to forget, amid the military-speak about targets and “R.O.E.’s” — “rules of engagement” in Libya — that the strategy and goals of his administration’s campaign remain infuriatingly unclear.

Over the weekend, the White House's women warriors and other foreign policy defenders of this worthy campaign were “missing in action,” declining to be specific about what they hope to achieve in Libya or in other Arab states where revolts against long-serving authoritarian regimes continue to gather steam.

But if Americans are to support this supposedly humanitarian campaign, President Obama and his foreign policy minions must be clear about their intentions in Libya. They should not dodge the tough political issues at stake now that war has begun by mindlessly reciting the text of United Nations resolution 1973, which calls upon Libya to end its violence against its own people and permit humanitarian aid to reach those affected by the recent rebellion.

Does this mean that the United States will not target Gadhafi personally, his family and ruling clique? Since the resolution does not speak about killing Gadhafi or ousting him and his murderous clique from power, does President Obama’s failure to reiterate his earlier demand that Gadhafi leave mean that his removal is no longer America’s objective?

Does it mean that Obama is prepared to live with Gadhafi should he stop his murderous campaign against Libya’s rebels? If Gadhafi withdraws his forces from Benghazi and other cities of the east where rebels reign, is he prepared to live with a divided Libya — a rebel-ruled free Libya in Benghazi and eastern Libya and an enclave controlled by Gadhafi and allied tribes in Tripoli and the west?

Are there negotiations under way, or being contemplated, with the amorphous “National Council” which claims leadership of the rebels, or for that matter, with Gadhafi?

If the goal of this campaign is, in fact, to force Gadhafi from power, what are the implications of this for American policy towards Bahrain, America’s key Gulf ally and home to our Fifth Fleet, which has also been killing its own citizens for protesting in Pearl Square? Or for other allied governments that from time to time violently repress protests and revolts?

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina urged the White House on Sunday to use what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “get rid” of Gadhafi, an international “outlaw.” Obama, the senator complained, has been “overly cautious” in relying on the United Nations Security Council to authorize this rescue operation, giving Russia and China a de facto veto over steps that may be in America’s national security interest.

So far, President Obama has waivered, saying one thing and doing quite another. After stating that Gadhafi had lost legitimacy and must go, he had to be pushed by the women around him even to stop a civilian slaughter.

Now he insists that his mission in Libya is limited to saving civilians. But he also said that our military involvement in Libya would be limited to a “supporting role,” though its military spokesman conceded Sunday that the campaign to create a no-fly zone over one-third of Libya from Tripoli to Benghazi — that is, where the overwhelming majority of Libya’s 6.5 million people live — has been American-led due to our country’s “unique” military assets and capability.

Is he not being honest with Americans about his strategic goals for this “humanitarian” operation? Has America been deliberately downplaying its leadership role to prevent Arab Muslims from accusing Washington of mounting a third war against a Muslim country?

The president’s earlier declaration about Gadhafi, the stiff sanctions that America and its allies have imposed against Tripoli, Washington’s seizure of $30 billion of Gadhafi family assets it has already identified, its decision to encourage the Arab League’s break with Gadhafi in supporting a no-fly zone, its quiet work to secure a broad U.N./ resolution that authorizes “all necessary measures” to safe civilian lives, short of international boots on the ground — all of these measures suggest that President Obama wants Gadhafi gone, if not dead.

But if that is so, then the time has come for him to make his end game clear. He should not wait once more for his women warriors to prod him either into bolder action, or an honest discussion with the American people whom he claims to lead. Secretary Clinton should not have to keep reminding him that Americans, for better or worse, chose him, not her, as their commander-in chief.

Read all of Judith Miller's columns on Pundicity.com.

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