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Obama at war: A study in ambiguity | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In 1986, the Americans dropped one bomb on Muammar Gaddafi’s palace in Tripoli followed with a stern message: stop terrorist attacks against us or more bombs will follow!

The message was received and the mercurial colonel called off his dogs of terror. The “ Supreme Guide” was so scared that for the following quarter of a century he lived in a tent believing that, if bombed again, he would have a better chance there than in a building.

Today, Gaddafi is the “Supreme Guide” of nothing besides Bab Azizieh, where, against character, he is digging in.

In 1986, the American message was clear.

Today, as Libya enters a new and potentially decisive phase, it isn’t.

What is Washington’s exact position?

The question is prompted by a dose of ambiguity that President Barack Obama and his senior aides have injected into what at first appeared to be a clear stance.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates have been making the rounds of television studios to, ever so gingerly, distance the US from the issue.

Just 10 days ago President Barack Obama announced that Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had lost “all legitimacy” and had to go.

Obama then joined the Anglo-French duo to implement a UN resolution that, in effect, demands regime change in Libya.

Obama’s warlike position was based on the premise that Libya was of national interest to the United States and that its collapse into chaos would be a threat to American security.

On Monday, however, Obama appeared to distance himself from his previous stance while still insisting that intervening in Libya reflected the United States’ values and interests.

The Clinton-Gates tandem even talk of a “draw-down” of American military involvement while NATO is drafted to handle the “mission”.

Gates appears to have a personal reason as well.

As he is scheduled to step down as defence secretary at the end of April, he is trying to wrap up the Libyan dossier before he leaves the Pentagon.

Clinton and Gates appear to be less interested in winning this war than in proving that Obama was cleverer, more prudent and more international minded than George W Bush.

To that end they make three claims.

The first is that Obama is acting “with international community”, the implication being that Bush “the Cowboy” rode alone.

However, the coalition acting in Libya consists of France, Britain and Qatar that, together, have provided 22 airplanes, with the US doing the heavy lifting.

In contrast, the US-led coalition in Afghanistan consisted of almost 90 countries while the coalition that liberated Iraq had 42 members.

The second claim is the familiar cliché about the impossibility of imposing democracy by force. However, in Libya as in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mission is to use force to remove a tyrant. How else could Libyans have a chance to at least think of a different future while Gaddafi is in control?

The third claim is that the US is not seeking regime change in Libya, a point made by Obama on Monday.

Well, in that case why did the president call for an end to Gaddafi’s regime?

Now that the US has become involved it cannot walk away without losing credibility.

The confusion that reigns in the Obama administration puts the US on a losing trajectory in all configurations.

In the best-case scenario, Gaddafi will be forced out or persuaded by his foreign friends to leave.

In that case, much of the credit would go to Britain and France that set the ball rolling and remained resolute in calling for the colonel to go.

The US that has already spent $1 billion and done 90 per cent of the operations to impose a no fly zone while knocking out the colonel’s armour would be seen as a quitter.

In the worst-case scenario, Gaddafi manages to hang on at least in a portion of western Libya. In that case, the finger of blame would be waved at an irresolute US that gave the despot hope to hang on. Gaddafi would be able to claim victory, reminding everyone that Obama had publicly called for his overthrow.

It is unwise to get involved in a war without wanting to win it.

Obama, Clinton and Gates may call it “mission”, “intervention”, and “operation”, but a war is a war by any other name.

What is happening in Libya is a war; in fact two wars. The inner war is between Gaddafi and his opponents. The outer one is between the “coalition” and what is left of Gaddafi’s military.

The sooner the Obama administration admits that this is a war the better.

Once that is done, the administration should fix its objectives for this war.

A war is not like a barbecue party that one could casually drop in and out of. One cannot engage a superpower in a war without knowing what its aim is.

Only when the objectives have been established, one could try to put together a coalition needed to achieve them.

The first signs of American fickleness have already encouraged worrisome developments.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has started accusing the US and its allies of intervening in a civil war rather than implementing a UN resolution. Clearly, the Russians want to remain in Gaddafi’s good books, just in case.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, an old pal of the colonel, is proposing a ceasefire, a move designed to kick the whole thing into tall grass in the hope that the anti-Gaddafi opposition would splinter while Western opinion turns against military intervention.

Algeria’s President Abdulaziz Bouteflika has also started making noises against “intervention in the domestic affairs” of an Arab country in the hope of splitting the Arab League and helping Gaddafi remain in power, thus also easing pressure on his own regime.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan is offering his “mediation” which means hedging his bets in case Gaddafi or part of his regime manage to hang on.

Unless the US reasserts leadership, sets clear objectives and provides the means of achieving them, the Libyan war could end in a big messy situation with unforeseeable consequences.