Although Obama sees advantages in keeping Washington in the background, especially in a region where the United States is held in such low regard, he has exposed himself to Republican charges that he is absent at a time of crisis. Conservatives say his one-of-the-team approach could also signal a decline in American fortitude after nearly a decade of war.
Since the uprising began, Obama has devoted just one set of public remarks solely to the situation in Libya, where fighting has reached a harsh stalemate. European nations have taken the lead in drafting a no-fly zone resolution, and Obama has yet to say whether he favors one. He followed France in calling for Gaddafi’s ouster.
At a Wednesday meeting of Obama’s senior national security officials, little support emerged for the immediate imposition of a no-fly zone, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
Jamming Libyan government communications and deploying U.S. naval assets to help deliver humanitarian aid were among the most favored near-term options, the official said, adding that “at any time facts on the ground could change, but the intelligence assessment now dispels the idea that a no-fly zone is the key here.”
Obama’s caution has been dictated in part by the challenge in dealing with one of the world's most hermetic countries and the fluid situation on the ground. The administration knows little about Libya’s well-armed rebels, cannot predict the political system that might replace Gaddafi’s bizarre rule, and faces an array of military options to stop the fighting.
Obama’s advisers say his low public profile masks the administration’s active private diplomacy, which has helped produce strong financial sanctions against Gaddafi’s inner circle, and the central U.S. role in military planning underway at NATO, whose defense ministers meet Thursday to consider next steps.
“This is the Obama conception of the U.S. role in the world — to work through multilateral organizations and bilateral relationships to make sure that the steps we are taking are amplified,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “Maybe this is a different conception of U.S. leadership. But we believe leadership should galvanize an international response, not rely on a unilateral U.S. response.”
For decades, U.S. presidents have been pressed to choose between intervening in foreign crises or ignoring them. Both paths have led to political risks for recent presidents, whose records are influencing Obama’s response to the violence in Libya.
Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that “there’s always going to be a demand for the United States to take immediate action, but it is not always the right thing to do.”
“Unfortunately, as president, ultimately your reasons don’t matter,” he said. “It’s whether you succeed or fail that does.”
Bill Clinton was criticized for standing by during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and waiting for years to use force in the Balkans. He finally did so in Kosovo without a U.N. Security Council resolution, a case that is being examined by European countries and the Obama administration as they decide how to proceed in Libya.
George W. Bush took that unilateral approach even further following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Bush administration failed to secure a Security Council resolution before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and generally found international institutions more confining than useful in addressing America’s post-Sept. 11 problems.
Obama, by contrast, is closely consulting his European counterparts and at times following their lead. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first leader of a major country to call for Gaddafi’s ouster. Obama did so the next day in a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and spoke his position publicly five days later, clearly aligning the United States with Libya’s opposition.
“Having called on Gaddafi to leave, I think it would be hard for the administration to back away from the crisis if that goal remains unmet,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who said doing so would risk sending a message to other autocrats that they can use violence to maintain power.
How Obama intends to use American power to achieve that goal has yet to be determined.
Britain and France are drafting the no-fly zone resolution for possible consideration by the Security Council. But it remains unclear where Obama stands on the issue, which has only mixed support on Capitol Hill.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman whose public statements often reflect administration policy,called Sunday for a no-fly zone, but White House Chief of Staff William Daley criticized advocates of the idea for referring to a no-fly zone as if it were a “video game.” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has also stressed the difficulties in carrying out such an operation.
“That seems to me to indicate an administration that has not yet made up its mind on what to do in Libya,” said Elliott Abrams, who was a National Security Council director under Bush. He called Daley’s comments “derisive.”
Obama inherited a pair of wars in Muslim countries, and his advisers argue that direct U.S. involvement in a third would do more harm than good to Libya’s popular uprising.
Abrams, who participated in the White House working group on Egypt assembled last year, said he “understands the point.”
“But I think they overdo it,” he said. “I think they are being too timid here. And they are running the risk that there will be a bloodbath tomorrow and, by then, it will be too late for them to help the opposition.”
Senior administration officials say that regardless of whether the U.S. role is characterized as leading or following, it has been part of a swift international response to the Libyan crisis.
The Security Council has imposed sanctions on Gaddafi’s regime and referred Libya’s case to the International Criminal Court. The Arab League and African Union, traditionally hesitant to rebuke a member, have done so in the case of Libya.
“Remaining in the background and letting the Europeans take the lead can help build consensus with such countries as Russia and China,” Cordesman said, referring to two veto-wielding Security Council members often suspicious of U.S. motives.“If we’d presented a sudden initiative, you might have seen it be far more difficult for others to act in support of it.”
Given the United States’ troubled history with Libya’s erratic leader, a senior administration official said, the White House decided early that “what would be more persuasive to Gaddafi is not just the United States saying something, but having the United States, the European Union, the Arab League, the African Union, the United Nations all saying the same things that essentially left him nowhere to turn for legitimacy or support.”
“That’s been done, essentially,” the official said, adding, “It’s not as if we’re not on the side of change.”