Libya: New Scenario Seems to Exclude Ground Intervention by EU or U.S. (3/16)     Print Email

As Moammar Gaddafi threatened fierce retribution against rebels in Benghazi, the Obama administration executed a dramatic policy shift toward the Libya, swinging behind a European-led push for a Security Council resolution authorizing international action to protect Libyans against Gaddafi loyalists.

The change in U.S. policy seems intended to reposition Washington in solidarity with Paris and London – and now the Arab League – in opening the political and legal door to Western help for Libyan rebels, REPORTEDLY TO INCLUDE A NO-FLY ZONE AND EVEN air strikes that could hamper the Gaddafi regime’s military movements inside Libya, NOTABLY IN TRYING TO OVERRUN THE BENGHAZI. Any such   intervention will exclude U.S. “boots on the ground” in Libya, according to U.S. officials, whose comments suggested that they expected other Arab countries to participate and shoulder a very visible role in any actions against Gaddafi under UN auspices.

A big question mark remains about the timing of this policy shift in Washington.  When it emerged, a day ahead of a crucial Security Council meeting on March 17, it seemed to be an 11th-hour response to criticism in some U.S. circles and from the French and British governments, that the West was abandoning its support for democracy in the Arab world.  But even if the West’s stance is hardened toward Gaddafi, it remains an open question about whether this change can come in time to alter the course of immediate events in Libya.

Even as France and Britain were pushing the UN Security Council for a no-fly zone over Libya, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé had acknowledged publicly that it was probably too late for an intervention of this kind to enable rebels to drive Moammar Gaddafi from power – or perhaps even to save the rebels from being crushed by the government’s firepower and mobility.

If, Mr. Juppe said, “we had used military force last week to neutralize a certain number of airfields and the dozens of airplanes available to Colonel Qaddafi, perhaps the reversals suffered by the opposition would not have happened, but that is the past.”

He was speaking as UN negotiations continued, but after he acknowledged that he had been unable to secure an agreement on the imposition of a no-flight zone from a Paris meeting on March 15 of the foreign ministers of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations. But France and Britain raised their rhetoric, calling for Western (and Arab) airstrikes on selected targets in Gaddafi’s forces. And Mr. Juppé wrote in his official blog, dated March 16, that several Arab nations had offered to take part in possible military action in support of the rebels, without naming them.

So far, however, the call for intervention has not snowballed into broad support by other key governments, notably the U.S. As a result, there has been a backlash of criticism by some political leaders and some left-leaning media against Western governments’ inaction – a backlash that can be partly explained by over-optimistic expectations raised by some Western leaders in earlier phases of the Libyan rebellion. President Barack Obama, apparently influenced by the outcome of the Egyptian revolution, said publicly that Libya’s Gaddafi should go – just as Egypt’s Mubarak left power without bloodshed.

Venting their frustration at the absence of action to enforce such rhetoric, France’s Le Monde newspaper, in its edition dated March 16, published an editorial call to arms headlined “it is time to help the Libyan rebellion.” (Here is an English translation of the article by the European Institute’s Georgio Comninos). It high-lighted what it called the “paradox” of everyone calling Gaddafi a criminal but no one wanting to stop his forces. On the same day in the same tone, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published equally fiery broadsides against the gap between EU rhetoric and inaction, saying that “no one wants to act without the U.S.”

On the ground, however, events in Libya seemed to be moving in the opposite direction, with reports describing further gains for Gaddafi’s forces. Analysts said his “army” – stiffened by African mercenaries -- could soon be in position to start besieging Benghazi, the country’s second largest city and the rebellion’s stronghold.

The shift in U.S. policy toward Libya coincided with new pressures that emerged on Washington from the other edge of the Arab world when the rulers of the Gulf island, Bahrain cracked down militarily on the pro-democracy protest movement there.   The local protest movement there (fueled by grievances of the Shiite majority) encountered a military crackdown by the island’s Sunni rulers, who called in troop reinforcements from Saudi Arabia and other Arab gulf states.  In this instance, the Obama administration’s actions are likely to be even more guarded, since Washington is wary of offending its most important Arab ally, Saudi Arabia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has chided the key Arab players in Bahrain that force is “the wrong track” to take. But verbal criticism is unlikely to be followed by anything substantive in this situation, especially because the Saudi leadership is reportedly angry already with the White House because of U.S. support for the early departure of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak.

These U.S. attitudes at both ends of the Arab world – in Libya as in Bahrain – seem to be dictated by a White House view of U.S. strategic interests that overrides, at least in these crises, longstanding rhetoric about spreading democracy. The sensitivity of the Saudi rulers’ views has been well publicized and widely recognized in the U.S. as a strategic interest to be respected. As for Libya, its repression seems to be benefiting from a White House view that Libya is not important enough for U.S. intervention: senior officials, notably the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, have made it clear that the United States does not view Libya as a vital strategic interest. (In addition, U.S public opinion, as measured in recent polls, is opposed to further U.S. military action in the Arab world.

By European Affairs