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The Slow-Motion President

Fiddling while Tripoli bombs.

Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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For three weeks, Obama administration officials publicly scoffed at the prospect of a no-fly zone over Libya and warned against military action in the Middle East. Then last week the administration backed a United Nations resolution that will likely result in both. 

The Slow-Motion President

Michael Ramirez

In the meantime, the seemingly endless consultations with the international community in search of some elusive “consensus” on Libya have made a successful outcome there much more difficult. 

On February 18, after days of clashes between protesters and regime loyalists, Qaddafi’s security forces began to withdraw from Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city. The victory gave confidence and momentum to the Libyan opposition. Rebel forces swept westward across Libya’s northern coast, taking towns and marching toward Tripoli. “We will keep protesting until the regime falls,” activist Badawi Altobawi told the New York Times. “There is no going back.” 

But Qaddafi did not share the growing sense of inevitability about the end of his rule. He dispatched his son, Saif al Islam el-Qaddafi, to deliver a nationally televised warning of a civil war. “We will fight until the last minute, until the last bullet.” He was serious. 

President Obama finally spoke publicly about Libya on February 23. He said that his team had presented him with a “full range of options,” but did not elaborate. The major announcement in his remarks seemed to be an upcoming trip to be taken by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, the president noted, would be headed to Europe for consultations in five days. 

But even as the administration insisted that all options remained on the proverbial table, its top officials were dismissing some of them. In remarks the White House distributed to reporters, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said a no-fly zone would do no good. 

“It’s important to understand that no-fly zones .  .  . really have a limited effect against the helicopters or the kind of ground operations that we’ve seen, which is why a no-fly zone, even if it were to be established, isn’t really going to impact what is happening there today,” he said. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen also made clear their skepticism about a no-fly zone.

There was a deep irony here. As the United States sought international consensus on Libya, several top officials were publicly arguing against the consensus emerging in favor of a no-fly zone among U.S. allies—including the French, the British, several Gulf states—and even members of the Arab League. All the while, on the ground in Libya, opposition leaders were seeking out journalists to beg for protection from Qaddafi’s planes. 

The Obama administration’s consultations continued. Without explaining how, Obama said that Qaddafi had to go, having “lost legitimacy.” Adopting the cowboy language he once found so distasteful, Obama proclaimed that the “noose” was “tightening” around Qaddafi’s neck. 

It wasn’t. Within days the opposition’s momentum had been arrested, then reversed. Qaddafi’s forces pushed back west-to-east, killing rebels and retaking towns as the international community dithered. 

In congressional testimony on March 11, Lieutenant General Ron Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, noted the change in momentum. “The impetus, I think as you know, I mean I think the press had it about right in terms of initially the momentum was with the other side. That has started to shift. Whether or not it has fully moved to Qaddafi’s side at this time in-country, I think is—is not clear at this time. But we have now reached a state of equilibrium where the—the initiative, if you will, may actually be on the regime side.” 

It was. Each new day brought horrific stories of a regime willing to do anything to survive and a desperate opposition bewildered that the world was idly watching their bloody demise. When Obama was asked directly about Qaddafi’s growing strength, he argued that “the rebel groups are just now getting organized” and promised to “continue to apply pressure” on the regime. 

Finally, in New York last Thursday, the United Nations Security Council finally authorized the use of force in Libya, with 10 nations voting in favor, and 5 abstaining. The Obama administration, following the lead of Britain and France, joined with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Gabon, Lebanon, Nigeria, Portugal, and South Africa in voting yes. Russia, China, our NATO ally Germany, Brazil, and India abstained. Now, having furthered the perception that U.N. authorization is necessary for U.S. action, and after a month of consultations and warnings and sanctions and on-the-ground brutality, the Obama administration was, finally, ready to act.

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