It took President Obama a long time to decide that he would engage in military action in Libya. Many would say too long. Now that America is actively involved the question is what are they doing there?

A very muscular UN resolution allows the allies to do a lot. But it does not allow them to actively seek to kill Col. Gaddafi or to remove him from office.  After a missile strike on Gaddafi’s compound they are having to officially deny that they are targeting Gaddafi himself.

The problem is that President Obama has said clearly that he wants to see Col Gaddafi leave power.  He said that weeks ago, when he had no intention of getting involved in air strikes.  He can’t have realized then how those words would come to haunt him.  Now he is faced with the choice of engaging in military action that does not achieve his stated aim – which makes the US look weak and ineffective.  Or he goes ahead and tries to get rid of a tyrant but acts outside the authority of the UN.  Given how cautious he has been to make sure nothing that he does in the Middle East in any way echoes the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq, then its unlikely he would do anything the UN hasn’t agreed to.

David Cameron has to be careful here too. He said he wanted to see Gaddafi go before Obama did. But he has also been at pains to say that the action the UK is involved in is “necessary, legal and right.” The reference to ‘legal’ is presumably a dig at Tony Blair and the argument over whether UK involvement in Iraq was legal. But abiding by that standard may force the UK to watch Gaddafi stay in power for years to come. Let’s not forget that Saddam Hussein survived a 12 year no fly zone imposed by US with UK help.

Both Britain and America, not to mention France, must be hoping that they can offer enough support to the Libyan rebels that they will take care of Gaddafi themselves. But the previous UN resolution that imposed a ban on exporting arms to Libya may well prevent other countries from legally supplying arms the opposition as well as to Gaddafi.

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Everyone is very eager to tell us that Libya is not Iraq. After all Obama got elected opposing the Iraq war.
So it’s very disconcerting that the people in America who seem the most supportive of his decision to take action over Libya are the architects of the invasion Iraq.

Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of Defense, said on ABC’s This Week: “What we have prevented, for one thing, is a bloodbath in Benghazi, which would have stained our reputation throughout the Arab world, at a time when our reputation really matters. … I don’t see how any unknown could be worse than the devil that is in Tripoli right now. … We have paid the price of intervention. Sometimes we’ve paid the price of non-intervention, in Bosnia, for example. One of the things that makes the situation so unique is the monstrous quality of the Tripoli regime, the monstrous quality of Gaddafi and his sons. And I know, you know, people say, ‘Well, what about Bahrain? What about Yemen?’ This is a totally different case, where a man is actually slaughtering his own people, has no regard for his own people. He uses mercenaries to kill them. It is a unique case, and it’s being watched throughout the Arab world.”

Not everyone else has such clearly defined views about what is happening in Libya. In part because the administration has not clearly explained why the US are involved.

We know that the president was at first deeply reluctant to commit to any kind of military force. We know that he was in large part persuaded by Sec of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, over the reluctance of people like Def Sec Bob Gates and Nat Sec Advisor Tom Donilon. And we know that it was the request from the Arab league for international assistance that tipped the balance in favor of taking action.

But there are also lots of known unknowns. We don’t know how the complaints from Amr Moussa, Gen. Sec. of the Arab League, about civilian casualties will alter thinking in Washington. We don’t know how far Obama is prepared to go. And we don’t know how involvement in Libya will alter his response to what’s happening in Yemen, Bahrain and possibly Saudi Arabia.


The problem is that no one knows what the administration’s overarching philosophy is toward the Arab Spring. We have not yet heard any kind of joined up thinking or unified strategy. We don’t know how the White house decides when to get involved and when to stay out. We don’t know which leaders they will demand stand down and which they will help to stay in power. We don’t know when being a long time ally of the US – like Bahrain- will allow you to stay in power. Or when they will cut their friends lose – like Mubarak in Egypt. We don’t know if it’s just Gaddafi who may be asked to pay the price for slaughtering innocent protestors or whether King Fahd in Saudi Arabia would face the same fate if he were to do the same thing.

Obama has always been more in love with fine words than decisive actions. Now that he has been forced into action in Libya it is time we had some words from him describing the philosophy that supports this action – assuming there is one.

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