U.S. struggles with little leverage to restrain Libyan government

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 12:30 AM

As Libya's government brutally cracked down on demonstrators Monday, the Obama administration confronted a cold truth: It had almost none of the leverage it has exercised in recent days to help defuse other crises in the region.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the violence in Libya on Monday evening, and said the United States is "working urgently with friends" around the world to pressure the government of Moammar Gaddafi. "Now is the time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed," she said in a statement.

But current and former officials said that American appeals are likely to have little effect on Gaddafi, a mercurial autocrat who for decades was regarded as a nemesis of U.S. presidents.

Although the United States has been able to leverage its deep ties with Egypt's armed forces, it has no significant military-to-military relationship with Libya. It also has little economic leverage: For the past fiscal year, U.S. aid to Libya has been less than $1 million, and most of that has gone toward helping the country's disarmament program.

There is not even a U.S. ambassador at the moment. Gene Cretz, the ambassador to Tripoli, was called back to Washington recently for extended "consultations" after WikiLeaks released cables in which he described Gaddafi's eccentricities.

"We don't have personal relations at a high level. As far as I know, President Obama has never even talked to Colonel Gaddafi," said David Mack, a former senior U.S. diplomat who dealt with Libya.

Libya was a pariah state for much of the past three decades. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration convinced the nation to give up its nuclear- and chemical-weapons programs. Libya also renounced terrorism, leading the U.S. government to remove it from the list of "state sponsors of terrorism."

But only in 2008 did the United States and Libya establish full diplomatic relations.

Obama, who is being kept abreast of events in Libya primarily by national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, is "considering all appropriate actions" as the unrest continues, said a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation.

Meanwhile, in a conversation with Gaddafi on Monday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "expressed deep concern at the escalating scale of violence and emphasized that it must stop immediately," according to a U.N. statement.

Still, experts say that Libya essentially floats on a cushion of oil wealth, and that any U.S. or U.N. effort to promote sanctions against it would attract little international support.

Libya's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, who broke with Gaddafi on Monday, urged the international community to impose a no-fly zone over the country to prevent mercenaries and arms from reaching the government. But no major power echoed the call.

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