Bystander-in-Chief Half Steps In

For weeks the White House has sat on the fence, seemingly paralyzed and unable to move. Allies and the Secretary of State have called for action against Gaddafi while the Pentagon and Obama’s base have been against it. The administration has spoken with two voices, neither of them the President’s. Messages have been incoherent and inconsistent. Mubarak was either a dictator or he wasn’t. All options were on the table, but a no-fly zone was impossible. Nothing could be decided without the UN Security Council, and America’s own position on the Security Council was unclear. Hillary Clinton came close to saying that the US would vote for a no-fly zone, but not propose one. But America’s UN delegation led observers to believe the US opposed a no-fly zone.

Then, suddenly, there was a fundamental St Patrick’s Day U-turn. The resolution which Lebanon, France and Britain had been pushing for weeks now had US support. Without it, the resolution lacked credibility and had not been put to a vote. With it, Russian and Chinese vetoes fell away. Ten of the fifteen Security Council members voted in favor and the other five abstained. The resolution was also much, much, stronger than anyone had anticipated. It authorized not just a no-fly zone but “all measures necessary” to protect Libyan civilians from the “threat” of violence. “All measures necessary” is a well-established UN phrase. It means all out war. It is the phrase that was used to declare war on North Korea in 1950 and to repel Saddam’s forces from Kuwait in 1990-91. “All” means all. The only thing that it does not authorize is occupation of Libya, but it would be, theoretically, within the scope of the resolution for allies to deploy forces on the ground, provided they were there to fight and not to occupy the country. In theory, one could argue that the long-term Coalition deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are not occupations, because the violence continues. The only thing not authorized by this resolution is long-term presence after the fighting ends, as with US forces in Germany and Japan, but they are not occupation forces either, as they stay at the request of the governments there.

But even after last Thursday’s U-turn, the position of the administration remains a little muddy. For 24 hours it was unclear whether US military assets would be available to enforce the resolution. The US voted for the resolution, but was, perhaps, unwilling to provide the necessary military muscle. By Saturday morning it was clear that the US would provide some firepower, but wanted to remain in the background. Britain, France, and Arab powers would lead on the implementation. America would stand by in support. In terms of any long-term deployment of air power, this makes no sense. US power is essential, and the US will have to lead. There is, however, another possibility. Perhaps the NATO powers will supply air cover, but Egypt will deploy ground forces. It is likely that Egypt could rapidly overrun Libya. Gaddafi’s power could be broken very quickly, especially if western power kept his air force on the ground.

But why has Obama equivocated for so long, to finally take a step which could have proved decisive two weeks ago? This is probably related to his wider weakness, and therefore a matter for a column of its own.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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