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What's Behind the Obama Reversal on Libya

The American reversal and sudden support for a No-Fly zone in Libya plus after Defense Secretary Robert Gates and influential portions of the American defense establishment had trashed it, requires explanation

Why was a policy that could have been extremely more effective in ousting Libyan autocrat Morman Qaddafi a few weeks ago now resurrected after Qaddafi has reasserted control over most of Libya and more importantly the oilfields?.

There is no doubt that the Obama administration will spin the familiar refrain "me no Bush " and claim that delay and "creative ambiguity" was a price that had to be paid to achieve the multilateral diplomacy that the Bush administration had scorned. More importantly, there will be Arab diplomatic cover, a cameo military role for Arab countries and Gulf checkbooks to finance the operation.

Other factors should be mentioned:

The Domestic Front

As opposed to Egypt, where the Republicans in Congress basically deferred to the president due to the uncertainty over the situation, the Republican Party was basically united that action was needed over Libya. Only Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a remnant of the Brent Scowcroft realist position, dissented from the emerging consensus in his party. Lugar will be facing a primary challenge next time around. The Republican position was clear even though public opinion surveys indicated that Americans wanted to stay out. The National Journal insider poll of Republican Congressmen gave Obama the grade of "D" for his policy in Libya.

The rising Republican star, Senator Marco Rubio was particularly scathing "The president has specifically said that Qaddafi must go but has done nothing since then except for having general debates about it for a week and a half or two...Congressional leadership has strongly called for a no-fly zone and nothing has happened."

What was worse, Obama could not muster more than a B- from Democrats in the same National Journal poll. Then came the announcement that Hillary Clinton would leave the State Department after the conclusion of Obama's first term. While Secretaries of State do not necessarily sign on for the duration of a presidency (see Warren Christopher and Colin Powell), the Clinton announcement was accompanied by leaks about her disgruntlement with the administration's policy on Libya. The sources said she saw it as amateurism and felt that she had been outmuscled on Libya by Gates and the Pentagon. Leaks are common in Washington, but when they create the wrong impression they are inevitably repudiated. The silence from the Clintons was deafening.

Responsibility to Allies

The Obama administration could not hang out Britain and France to dry on this issue. These 2 countries are the only European countries that still make a semblance of commitment to defense and a military posture. Any future multilateralism begins with these countries and therefore the administration had to fall in step with them, or face a situation that next time around there would be nobody to call upon.

The same holds true for the Arab countries that provided the diplomatic cover for the UN resolution. An Arab approval for the action will not necessarily immunize the region from an anti-American reaction. Osama bin Laden was infuriated by the American presence in Saudi Arabia as a result of Operation Desert Storm to free Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. It did not matter to him that Arab and Muslim countries from Bangladesh to Morocco had signed on; actually it made things worse. However, once having prodded Arab countries to back the resolution, the administration could not let them down.

Qaddafi's Pride and Fall

A final factor in the American reversal was Moammar Qaddafi himself. When the United States and Soviet Union were allies during World War II, Stalin remonstrated with Franklin Roosevelt over the US insistence on "unconditional surrender". Stalin advised Roosevelt: "First get the surrender and then you can make it unconditional at your own pace".

When Qaddafi was content with capturing town after town while keeping quiet, he could get away with it. However, his military successes created a sense of hubris.

"Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean to danger, and civilian and military facilities will become targets," bragged the Libyan Defense Ministry, thus creating the impression that Western and primarily American inaction was not a calculated voluntary policy but Western cowering before Libyan tyrant.

Qaddafi on Thursday warned Benghazi that "we are coming tonight and there will be no mercy." In an address delivered on Libyan state television, he promised to hunt down opposition "traitors . . . in the alleyways, house to house, room to room. . . . The whole world will watch Benghazi and see what will happen in it."

By the last statement Qaddafi gave ammunition to the interventionists, who argued that a Qaddafi victory would result in a bloodbath. The world was not prepared to watch.

Qaddafi has now upped the ante by closing Libyan air space and threatening to retaliate against shipping and aviation in the Mediterrranean.

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