x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Obama defends US strategy on Libya

US had to act over potential ¿massacre¿, said president, but questions remain over how Qaddafi can be ousted without increasing military operation.

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama presented a strong defence of his administration's policy on Libya, telling an American prime-time audience that the US had acted with unprecedented speed and utmost caution.

The US president said on Monday the country had no choice but to intervene forcefully in view of a potential "massacre" of Libyans. But important questions remain unanswered, including how the US goal of seeing Col Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, ousted can be achieved without broadening the scope of the UN-mandated military operation, something Mr Obama specifically said would be a mistake.

Mr Obama said that while the US had an obligation to act on "what's right", the country could not be expected to use military force "wherever repression occurs".

Mr Obama's insistence that American leadership of military operations over Libya will pass to Nato is somewhat belied by Washington's senior role in the organisation. It suggests Mr Obama was trying to sugar-coat a continued and significant role in Libya for a domestic audience wary of further US military involvement abroad.

As world powers met in London yesterday to determine what a Nato command would mean, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called the meeting a "turning point".

She defined the gathering, in part, as working out how to pursue the "broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to the Libyan people".

Whatever strategy is agreed upon, there is little doubt that the US will play a central role not only in mapping out strategy but in implementation.

Mr Obama's insistence that Nato, not the US, would now be in control of operations was "very disingenuous", according to Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and a prominent neoconservative commentator.

Mr Muravchik pointed out that when Nato was in charge of operations in Bosnia in the 1990s - an example also cited in a different context by Mr Obama in his speech on Monday - American aircraft flew "90 per cent of sorties".

Mr Obama's stated opposition to regime change in Libya, Mr Muravchik suggested, was really an opposition to committing US ground troops to achieving it.

"Of course they are trying to overthrow Qaddafi by force. I think he is obfuscating."

The last thing the US would want was a situation in which Libya was divided and Col Qaddafi clung on to power, argued Mr Muravchik.

In that case, he said, Mr Obama would not be averse to authorising some kind of "covert action" to arm and train the opposition, even if that was done by third parties but "orchestrated by us".

Critics of the administration's handling of Libya, however, fail to properly appreciate the "extraordinarily tough political environment" that the administration is faced with in the Middle East at the moment, said Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Essentially the world is getting rewired right in front of [Mr Obama's] face. It's hard. [The administration] had to do something, and I think they are doing the best they possibly can."

On the regional level, perhaps the most pressing issue for Mr Obama was the precedent that military intervention in Libya has set. The American president made a point of outlining the unique circumstances that he said had forced the international community's hand in Libya.

But it is not clear what position the US can take on other security clampdowns in the region, in Bahrain and Syria for example, without also inviting criticism of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

"[The Libyan intervention] is a precedent," said Mr Cook. "And it's much easier to do this with people you don't like. We may end up doing it in Syria. They are not going to do it with Bahrain."

But the problem of precedent had to be put aside in Libya because the administration had no choice but to act. With revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya's neighbours, still fragile, inaction would have sent the message to others in the region that "Mubarak was an idiot for not cracking down", said Mr Cook.

Ultimately, he said, it was in America's interest to support burgeoning democracy forces in the region.

"We want authoritarian leaders to know that there are consequences to applying force on their own people. And we want people in the Arab world to know that the US supports their desire to live in more free and open societies," he said.