Barack Obama's Libya straitjacket

Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 8:10 PM

"WE HAVE ALREADY engineered the most rapid and forceful set of sanctions that have ever been applied internationally," President Obama boasted last week in one of his rare public statements about Libya. The accuracy of that claim is open to question; but whether or not it set a record, the administration's response to Moammar Gaddafi seems to be having the effect of encouraging him to wage a civil war while locking in the military advantage he holds.

Mr. Obama followed European leaders in declaring that Mr. Gaddafi must be removed from power; a White House account of his telephone call Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron said "the common objective in Libya must be an immediate end to brutality and violence [and] the departure of Gaddafi from power as quickly as possible." At the same time a U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Feb. 26 referred Mr. Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court for prosecution, meaning that he is likely to be subject to arrest if he leaves Libya.

It follows that the dictator has few choices other than to try to regain control of his country by force or die trying. His troops have been waging brutal battles to retake towns held by the rebels, using artillery, tanks, warplanes and other heavy weapons - and killing large numbers of civilians. Rebel leaders say they are badly outgunned and cannot easily advance across Libya's open desert because of the threat of air attack.

Meanwhile, the State Department and the Pentagon have been adopting positions that would make intervention to change that military balance difficult, if not virtually impossible. On Monday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said an arms embargo included in the U.N. resolution meant that "it's a violation for any country to provide arms to anyone in Libya," including the rebels. On Tuesday Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that "it's very important that there be a U.N. decision on whatever might be done," including imposing a no-fly zone. She added: "There is still a lot of opposition . . . within the Security Council."

It's beginning to look as if what Mr. Obama has "engineered" is a situation in which the United States and its closest allies have declared that a dictator must go "as quickly as possible" - and have not only constrained themselves from ensuring that outcome but are actively hindering it by refusing to provide arms to the opposition. So far the United States has not even recognized the opposition administration set up in Benghazi - even though the White House has said repeatedly that Mr. Gaddafi's regime is no longer legitimate.

Mr. Obama, who skipped a meeting of his top aides on Libya Wednesday, may hope that the Libyan rebels will defeat the Gaddafi forces without outside help - or that other Western governments will provide the leadership that he is shunning. Meetings of NATO, the European Union and the Arab League in the next several days may produce decisions that loosen the straitjacket the administration has applied to itself. If not, the world will watch as Mr. Gaddafi continues to massacre his people, while an American president who said that he must go fails to implement any strategy for making that happen.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company