Administration Urged to State Its Libya Stance Clearly

By Patrick Goodenough | March 11, 2011 | 5:24 AM EST

Front row, left to right, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and British Defense Secretary Liam Fox during a group photo of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Thursday, March 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

( – The Obama administration is being showered from all sides with often conflicting advice on the crisis in Libya, but one common thread running through much of the counsel is that the U.S. should lay out a plan and a goal, and then follow through.

Whether arguing for or against options such as a “no-fly zone,” bombing the Libyan air force, recognizing and/or arming anti-government rebels, and other forms of military or diplomatic intervention, experts say the administration needs to speak clearly.

The U.S. joined other NATO members Thursday in taking no decision on the imposition of a no-fly zone to help protect Libyans against what appears to be an escalating offensive by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a press conference after the meeting of alliance defense ministers in Brussels that NATO would act only “if there is demonstrable need, a sound legal basis and strong regional support.”

“We also agreed to continue planning for all military options,” he added.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said later Thursday that NATO was “continuing to plan for the full range of possible options, including a no-fly zone,” adding that NATO would receive a report on the matter on March 15.

The administration’s expressed support for the no-fly zone option has been lukewarm, with officials also stressing that the U.S. should not be seen as driving the international response to the conflict.

President Obama allowed others, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to take the leader in calling for Gaddafi should step down before adding his voice. France on Thursday again was first to recognize a provisional council of anti-Gaddafi rebels based in eastern Libya; Clinton now plans to meet with unspecified rebel leaders during a trip next week to France, Tunisia and Egypt.

The cautious approach has been criticized by some on the right as showing a lack of leadership, while praised by multilateralist voices as appropriate and correct.

Mixed messages are also drawing criticism and accusations of “dithering.” On Wednesday, administration officials’ statements about whether U.N. Security Council endorsement for a no-fly zone proposal was essential, or merely desirable, caused some confusion.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, seen here with President Obama at the White House, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that Muammar Gaddafi’s regime would likely “prevail” over the rebels in a protracted conflict. (Photo: DNI)

Further perplexing was Thursday’s assessment by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in congressional testimony, that Gaddafi’s regime would likely “prevail” over the rebels in a protracted conflict.

White House national security advisor Tom Donilon told reporters during a conference call later that Clapper’s evaluation was “undimensional” had not taken into account other factors such as Gaddafi’s loss of legitimacy and steps to isolate and sanction his regime.

‘A clear and compelling case’

Experts and commentators differ over how they think the administration should respond to the Libya situation, but many agree that the White House should be more clear in declaring its intentions.

“Move quickly to determine a desired end state to the situation in Libya, supported by a strategy for achieving it,” Heritage Foundation scholars Peter Brookes, James Phillips and James Jay Carafano advised the administration in a memo Thursday.

“[I]t is incumbent on the administration to move beyond the seeming policy paralysis that has gripped the White House so far on Libya, and finally lay out a course of action for this nation that protects and advances U.S. interests in Libya and the surrounding region,” they said. “Anything less is a failure of leadership.”

“Explain the course of action,” John Norris of the Center for American Progress advised the administration.

“President Obama, in consultation with Congress, needs to make a clear and compelling case to the American public about what he believes to be the best option before using military force or ruling it out,” said Norris, executive director of the liberal CAP’s sustainable security and peace-building initiative.

“He needs to articulate the potential risks and rewards of this strategy, and how this is tied to our fundamental interests as a nation and a people,” he added.

“The administration should stake out its position and take its action,” said the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, concluding a report on the Libya crisis and U.S. response.

“With the military options, the big question is what is it that we are trying to do?” Pollack Brookings Institution analyst Kenneth Pollack asked during a web chat Wednesday.

“Are we trying to push Gaddafi out of power? Are we just trying to demonstrate some commitment to the opposition? Or are we just trying to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe? These are very different goals and they push you in very different directions regarding the actual options available to you.”

Clinton defended the steps taken to date when asked during a press appearance Thursday how long the U.S. and international community could “stand on the sidelines without taking military action.”

“I think the international community is well aware of the situation and has moved quite quickly and forcefully,” she replied.

Clinton listed measures including a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions and referring the regime to the International Criminal Court, contacts with Libyan opposition figures, a decision Thursday to suspend the Libyan Embassy in the U.S., as well as the planning underway at NATO.

“Trying to plan is the first and most important undertaking, and there is an enormous amount of planning going on,” she said. “But it’s very challenging, and I think we ought to have our eyes open as we look at what is being bandied about and what is possible, in order to make good decisions.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow