The Washington war drums are beating for the president to strike at Gaddafi – not least because he may yet survive the revolt
Political pressure is growing on Barack Obama to administer a coup de grace to Colonel Gaddafi, if need be through direct US military intervention. In part it’s because policymakers and commentators see a chance of a fresh, democratic start in Libya, and in part because they fear a vacuum that anti-western Islamists and al-Qaida may fill. But Washington’s war drums are also beating faster out of concern that Gaddafi, a long-reviled bogeyman first targeted by Ronald Reagan, may yet survive the revolt.
John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, is leading the charge – coincidentally providing a salutary insight into how America might act now had he and Sarah Palin not been defeated by Obama. McCain is urging the White House to declare its support for a Libyan provisional government, even though none presently exists, and provide “technical assistance”, training and intelligence to rebel forces.
Undeterred by Pentagon chief Robert Gates’s warning that a no-fly zone (NFZ), as proposed by David Cameron, would be tantamount to declaring war, McCain said imposing a NFZ would not be difficult and would show “the president is serious when he says we need for Gaddafi to go”. The Republican senate leader, Mitch McConnell, is arguing (again like Cameron) that supplying weapons to the rebels “could be an option”. Stephen Hadley, former president George Bush’s national security adviser, suggested immediate aerial arms drops.
Democrat John Kerry has also jumped in, even though, given his long experience on the senate foreign affairs committee, he should know better by now. Apparently oblivious to Britain’s SAS disastrous weekend adventure in eastern Libya, Kerry said bombing Libya’s military air bases, runways and airports could be effective in containing Gaddafi’s air power. He claimed a NFZ would not amount to military intervention. But he added it should only be undertaken with international agreement.
Obama’s position, so far, is that significant support from allies, principally Nato but also Arab states, would be required before any such steps were taken – conjuring the prospect of an Iraq era, neo-Rumsfeldian “coalition of the willing”. The White House has been vague about whether a new UN resolution is needed. Nato’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, last week rejected intervention in Libya without specific UN authorisation but has nevertheless been ordered to draw up “full-scope” contingency plans that presumably include military action. Nato defence ministers will discuss Libyan options on Thursday. EU leaders are to meet the next day.
Rightwing commentators such as John Yoo of the American Enterprise Institute, meanwhile pour scorn on Obama who, Yoo says, claims to uphold universal values but uses international law to keep his “passivity and confusion” concealed. “By putting aside the UN’s antiquated rules [restricting armed intervention], the US can save lives, improve global welfare and serve its own national interests,” Yoo wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
The sense that momentum is building behind expanded, American-led involvement in the crisis is enhanced by possibly over-dramatic UN and governmental statements about the humanitarian situation and by the US offshore military build-up. The language used in a statement issued on Sunday by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, gave the impression the stakes are rising. Ban said he was “deeply concerned about the fighting … which is claiming large numbers of lives and threatens even more carnage in the days ahead”.
US assets deployed close to Libya now include the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit comprising two amphibious assault ships, Harrier jump-jets, attack helicopters, landing craft and combat troops. The US can also call on numerous aircraft based in Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean plus special forces, technical and intelligence gathering units. Operations to disrupt the regime’s communications through “cyber attack” signal-jamming are being prepared. Meanwhile, the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier and its strike group is reportedly moving up the Red Sea, heading for the Suez canal.
It’s a sure bet Obama does not want to get involved militarily in Libya if he can help it. But he has demanded that Gaddafi step down. And the country is the exception to his hands-off, post-Egypt policy rule of encouraging peaceful reform by friendly Arab governments. If regime forces continue to regain lost territory, if casualties and evidence of mass killings of civilians mount, if the humanitarian crisis deepens, and if political pressure intensifies in Washington, Obama may feel obliged to act.
Critically, if the US calculates that Gaddafi – wounded, vengeful and blaming the west for his woes – could ultimately survive in Tripoli to fight another day, this moment of maximum weakness may be seen in Washington as a final, but finite, opportunity to get rid of him once and for all. Gaddafi’s survival would break Arab hearts. It could also break Obama’s whole fragile Middle East strategy.