HAVANA TIMES, March 7 (IPS) — Under growing political pressure at home, President Barack Obama inched closer here Monday towards committing U.S. military power to at least protecting areas under rebel control, if not ending the 42-year reign of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
For the first time in the three-week-old crisis that looks increasingly like a civil war, Obama spoke about taking “potential military options” to end or alter the conflict, which see-sawed over the weekend in fighting in several key towns and cities along the Mediterranean coast.
“We’ve got NATO, as we speak, consulting in Brussels around a wide range of potential options, including potential military options, in response to the violence that continues to take place inside of Libya,” he told reporters during a brief public appearance with visiting Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Repeating earlier warnings that the violence perpetrated by pro-regime forces was “unacceptable”, Obama also said it was important to send “a very clear message to the Libyan people that we will stand with them in the face of unwarranted violence and the continuing suppression of democratic ideals that we’ve seen there.”
Obama spoke as the ambassadors of NATO member-states began a series of intensive talks this week to culminate in a defense ministers’ meeting Thursday.
Briefing the press by teleconference from Brussels, Washington’s NATO ambassador, Ivo Daalder, said the alliance had already decided to increase flights by AWACS surveillance aircraft from 10 to 24 hours a day to aid both humanitarian-supply efforts that have already begun, but also to prepare the ground for possible military intervention, as well.
Ministers will consider plans to enforce an existing U.N. arms embargo against Libya and may well take up the imposition of a no-fly zone (NFZ), he said. The latter is favored by Britain and France, despite anticipated opposition from veto-wielding Russia and China, as well as other Council members, including Brazil and Turkey.
“Everyone would want another U.N. Security Council resolution,” Daalder said.
Obama’s suggestion that Washington is considering military options beyond the delivery of humanitarian aid marked the latest development in a growing debate over what to do about Libya.
When it became clear early last week that Gaddafi – unlike his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt – was determined to fight popular protests and uprisings across the country with lethal force, neo-conservatives and some liberals among the U.S. foreign policy elite appealed to Obama and NATO to impose an NFZ and disable Libyan naval vessels in order to reduce the regime’s capacity for violence, if not bring “an end to the murderous Libyan regime”, as one letter signed by some 40 analysts urged.
Even as Obama and other senior officials toughened their own rhetoric against Gaddafi, however, top Pentagon officials spent much of last week pushing back against the hawks.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who told West Point cadets Feb. 25 that any successor “who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,'” warned lawmakers against the consequences of using “the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East”.
“Let’s just call a spade a spade,” he said. “A NFZ begins with an attack on Libya. …If it’s ordered, we can do it. But the reality is, there’s a lot of, frankly loose talk about some of these military options.”
Gates was backed up by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who described a NFZ as “an extraordinarily complex operation to set up”, and the head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. James Mattis.
“So no illusions here,” the latter told one committee. “It would be a military operation. It wouldn’t just be telling people not to fly airplanes.”
As late as Sunday, Obama’s chief of staff, William Daley, scorned the idea. “Lots of people throw around phrases of ‘no-fly zone’ – they talk about it as though it’s just …a video game or something,” he told an NBC interviewer. “When people comment on military action, most of them have no idea what they’re talking about.”
But the hawks were not deterred. Obama’s 2008 Republican presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, joined by the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, argued Sunday in favor of a NFZ and other measures, including possibly arming the rebels and recognizing their provisional government in Benghazi.
“We can’t risk allowing Gaddafi to massacre people from the air,” McCain, a former pilot who was shot down on a bombing mission over Hanoi during the Vietnam War, said on ABC. “Their air defenses are somewhat antiquated, and this would send a signal to Gaddafi that President (Obama) is serious when he says we need for Gaddafi to go,” he added.
At the same time, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, who has frequently acted as a proxy for the administration, also came out for stronger measures, suggesting that Washington bomb Libya’s airports and runways to make its air force unusable, if not, at least for now, impose an NFZ, which, he insisted, would not constitute “military intervention”.
Still others, such as the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal and Tom Ricks, a prominent military analyst at the Center for a New American Security, have suggested jamming the regime’s propaganda broadcasts and military communications, as well as providing weapons to the insurgents.
Ricks warned Monday on his foreignpolicy.com blog that inaction on Washington’s part was increasingly difficult to defend “because we don’t want the lesson to Arab autocrats to be that all you need to do is shoot up the rebels and the West will turn tail.”
But other analysts disagreed.
“Although the impetus to take some sort of forceful action on behalf of endangered and oppressed Libyans is understandable, establishment of a no-fly zone – with everything that would have to go with it militarily – would change the character of the conflict from a popular uprising to something looking more like a war between NATO and an Arab country,” Paul Pillar, a former top Middle East CIA analyst, told IPS.
“That would not necessarily be in the best interest of further favorable political change in the Middle East. Such a step by NATO also – given the prospect of a prolonged struggle on the ground in Libya – could become a lengthy endeavor with no clear termination point,” he noted in an email exchange.
“The U.S. should be very careful about getting in the middle of a civil war,” said Charles Kupchan, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It should focus on minimizing the loss of life and the delivery of humanitarian assistance, but, at this point in the conflict, it would be dangerous to introduce U.S. military force, because it’s conceivable we could cause more bloodletting than less.”
“The best outcome from a U.S. perspective is a home-grown toppling of the regime, so I would focus on efforts to further erode support for Gaddafi, in part by providing incentives to units still loyal to him to peel off, but I think the downside risks of direct intervention are still too high,” he said.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.