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      Where is Obama? Explaining US Caution on Libya

      INN's world news analyst Amiel Ungar explains why Obama is holding back, although Libya seems to call for a more interventionist attitude.
      By Amiel Ungar
      First Publish: 2/23/2011, 7:06 PM / Last Update: 2/23/2011, 9:35 PM

       

      Where is Obama?

      This was the question posed by the Washington Post's and formerly Commentary blogger Jennifer Rubin. As opposed to staking out a clear position as he had done in the Egyptian crisis, the president of the United States has been surprisingly reticent on Libya.  The restrained comments that were issued on Libya have been delegated to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the new Press Secretary Jay Carney.

      Libya was ostensibly a no brainer, since Libyan strongman Qaddafi is universally loathed in the United States. The level and ferocity of the repression that he has launched against what he calls 'the rats' invites a strong response.

      Whereas in Egypt, American politicians were cautious, on Libya they have been more up front. Republican Senators John Kyl and Mark Kirk released a joint statement calling upon Obama to speak out clearly in support of the Libyan people. Some Republicans. such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich enjoyed goading the president. Gingrich accused Obama of practicing a conspiracy of silence when dealing with anti-American governments such as Libya and Iran.

      At a Tea Party event in South Carolina, another Republican presidential hopeful and conservative favorite, representative Michele Bachman, gave her audience plenty of sound bites when she accused "Our Peace Prize-winning president" of fawning over dictators and potentates. She then came up with the ultimate put down: Obama was "accomplishing something nobody thought even possible: He's making Jimmy Carter look like a Rambo tough guy."

      Noted columnist Charles Krauthammer repeated the accusation: "If you are ally of the United States, Israel, Egypt, Honduras, elsewhere; Obama is not a friend. If you are an enemy of the United States he might give you a pass,"

      The calls for firmer action are coming from all parts of the political spectrum in the United States. John Kerry, the Democratic standard bearer in the 2004 elections and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for imposing the sanctions that were lifted by President Bush in 2004 after Qaddafi abandoned his nuclear program ""These are concrete steps that must be taken now and in the days ahead to show that the world will respond with actions, not just words, when a regime wields reprehensible violence against its own people." 

      Even representatives of the realist line, such as the Washington Post's David Ignatius, urged action and presidential visbility "President Obama should recognize that this is a moral issue and find his voice. Yes, he has to worry about the U.S. diplomats remaining in Libya. But the Arab world is watching, and it will remember what Obama says and does. This is a clear case of right and wrong, and the United States and its allies should show they mean it when they describe Gaddafi's behavior as "unacceptable."

      So what makes Barack Obama hesitant? Ignatius apparently picked up on what Hillary Clinton called the greatest priority-the need to secure the safe exit of Americans from Libya. It is not a simple matter to arrange that.  The last thing the administration needs is a hostage situation resembling Iran in 1979.

      In addition, Qaddafi has threatened to blow up the oil wells. If the turmoil has already caused a spike in oil prices, imagine the repercussions that will be caused by the long-term disablement of Libyan oil production.

      When Obama practiced similar circumspection during the demonstrations by the green movement in Iran last year, he claimed that he did not want to play into the hands of the regime by letting them identify the demonstrators with the United States. He may be thinking the same in Libya. Qaddafi may realize this as he chose to stage his defiant speech near a former headquarters that had been bombed out by the Americans in the 1980s. Therefore it is easier for the administration to say that the job of deposing Qaddafi belongs to the Libyans themselves.

      As hard as it is to play defense attorney for Obama, it is unclear that Obama can do anything besides utter grand words, even if he does want to take a stand. The re-imposition of sanctions could possibly work in the long term, assuming that they were not circumvented or diluted as Saddam Hussein was on the verge of doing prior to the invasion of Iraq.  Weapons and demonstration control equipment have already been delivered to Qaddafi and he is using them.

      It is difficult for an administration committed militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan to contemplate another prolonged military action in Libya. Moreover, it is far from certain that the United States can secure UN Security Council approval or even unanimous NATO approval for military action. This leaves only the option of a "coalition of the willing", as in Iraq, but who is currently ready and willing given the economic crisis and the disillusionment with other military intervention ? Opinion polls demonstrate a clear reluctance amongst the American public. Obama has read these polls and they drive his reaction.