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Obama faces a challenge in defining his aims in Libya

The president who in the past has espoused antiwar principles must justify his reasons for U.S. military involvement and specify its goals. He will discuss Libya in a speech to the nation Monday night.

March 27, 2011|By Bob Drogin and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • A protester takes part in an antiwar demonstration near the White House.
A protester takes part in an antiwar demonstration near the White House. (Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — Barack Obama entered the White House as a reluctant warrior, a dovish Democrat who espoused his principles at a 2002 antiwar rally: "What I am opposed to is … a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. … A war based not on reason, but on passion."

Now, as the U.S.-led bombing of Libya enters a second week, President Obama must convince an anxious public and a restive Congress that his decision to plunge America's military into the cauldron of a distant armed mission is none of those things.

So far, it is much easier to explain why America joined the conflict — as an emergency action to protect civilians — than to envision how it will end. The president has yet to clarify his long-term aims and how he plans to achieve them. Nor has he said what happens if Moammar Kadafi stays in power, as the Libyan leader has vowed, despite a no-fly zone and airstrikes against his military.

Photos: Libyan uprising retakes Ajdabiya

Obama will discuss his plans in Libya during a speech to the nation Monday night. In the meantime, in his weekly radio address Saturday, he said that Kadafi's attacks against civilians "must stop" and that his forces "must pull back." But he didn't outline circumstances under which the intervention would end except to say that "the aspirations of the Libyan people must be realized."

Many analysts say that, short of targeting Kadafi in a military strike, which the Obama administration says it will not do, the U.S. and its allies may face a long war of attrition.

A worst-case scenario would leave Kadafi entrenched in oil-rich western Libya, able to lash out at the West and his Arab rivals, while coalition forces are bogged down for months or years enforcing a no-fly zone over a quasi-autonomous rebel state in eastern Libya.

"If [Kadafi] stays, it's clearly a failure," said Edward S. Walker, former top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East. "They can't let him hang on."

To avoid that, coalition governments have quietly sent word to Libya that they won't seek to dismantle Kadafi's entire government apparatus if he goes. Nor would they be too particular about the government that follows, although Western nations will press for one that respects basic rights.

Instead, they simply want Kadafi out and would leave the formation and policies of the successor government largely to the Libyan people, said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

It is one reason that the U.S. has not followed France in extending diplomatic recognition to the 31-member Transitional National Council, the ostensible ruling body in the de facto rebel capital, Benghazi. Washington also says it is not funneling weapons to the insurgent force, although that remains under consideration.

Charles Cecil, a senior U.S. diplomat in Libya in 2006-07, said arming the poorly equipped rebels may prove of little value because the ragtag force lacks the training, experience and commanders to pose a credible challenge to Kadafi's tanks and artillery.

"It's hard to imagine how this revolution can succeed now," he said.

The obvious, and worrisome, comparison is Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the U.S., Britain and France imposed two no-fly zones over Iraq in what was described as a humanitarian effort to protect Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south. Allied warplanes flew tens of thousands of sorties for 12 years until the 2003 U.S.-led invasion forced Hussein out.

As they did with Hussein, Washington and its allies have urged members of Kadafi's inner circle to abandon him or to take what one official called "more permanent steps" to remove him. The officials hope top aides and tribal leaders will oust him, move to negotiations or even create a coalition government with the rebels.

But as with Iraq, that may be a pipe dream.

At the start of the Libyan revolt, several senior officials made highly publicized defections. But "I think that's dried up completely," said Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya.

Kadafi has run his government like an organized crime syndicate for 41 years, using a mix of patronage and violence to enforce his decrees. A new government is likely to prosecute members of his inner circle, including his sons. Many government officials thus have a personal interest in keeping Kadafi in power.

"I'm not sure there's much yet in the hands of the coalition to persuade any waverers," said Richard Dalton, British ambassador to Libya from 1999 to 2002.

Another potential hurdle in getting Kadafi out: The United Nations Security Council urged the International Criminal Court to consider charges against Kadafi and his family for attacks on civilians. The charges would follow Kadafi even if he left the country.

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