On Libya, Obama willing to let allies take the lead

Moammar Gaddafi forces launched more air strikes on oil facilities in an attempt to take back crucial rebel-held territories. (March 10)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 12:21 AM

President Obama is content to let other nations publicly lead the search for solutions to the Libyan conflict, his advisers say, a stance that reflects the more humble tone he has sought to bring to U.S. foreign policy but one that also opens him to criticism that he is a weak leader.

The tactic is anathema to many conservatives and worries some liberal interventionists, who believe that only overt American authority can assemble an effective opposition to brutal authoritarian governments such as that of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

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."

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