Obama’s Dilemmas in Libya

Reuters sums it up: balancing clarity with coalition-building, balancing the desire to remove Gaddafi with the desire to limit America’s liability, and balancing this war with his domestic political interests:

What remains unclear, however, is what happens if Gaddafi stays in power despite a no-fly zone and air strikes.

This is the ‘black hole’ of the current strategy: there may not be an indigenous force powerful enough, or an international actor willing enough, to fight over land, seize enough of the oil-fields, and topple the ruler.

And then:

Though allied bombing of Gaddafi’s forces has helped Libya’s rebel army reverse the military losses of their five-week-old insurgency, analysts see the risk of a bloody stalemate that could prolong Western military support.

Despite that, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates told NBC’s “Meet the Press” the United States would begin reducing its role in the Libya no-fly zone in the next week or so.

In an admission that could provide further ammunition for Obama’s critics, Gates said Libya was not in itself a vital U.S. interest but defended the intervention on humanitarian grounds and because of the threat of a Libyan refugee crisis further destabilizing neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

But if US intervention is not enough to overthrow Gaddafi, but enough to alter the power balance and create a bloody stalemate, then this could also generate a refugee and humanitarian crisis. A state locked into drawn-out civil conflict does not serve human rights well.

If  the US denies vital interests are in play and insists on the humanitarian objectives of the war, this may be partly to do with keeping the international coalition together and sustaining the legitimacy of their action. But this promises to erode American domestic support, if history is a guide, where vital interests are an important pre-requisite for the US public to be willing to support a war.

Obama is struggling to balance his handling of world crises with his domestic priorities of jobs and the economy, considered crucial to his re-election chances.

Gaddafi’s calculations here? Obama is on the clock. If, unlike his allies, Obama is determined to limit his liability, keep the problem small and draw down quickly, then Tripoli only has to endure for a little while longer before the US takes itself ‘off the board.’

Obama’s realisation of the dilemmas involved and his efforts to keep the US in the background reflect an astute political mind. But strategically, this has all the signs of a campaign being made up as it goes along, without coherent strategic calculation.

It may be that we get lucky here, that the rebels prove stronger and Gaddafi’s forces more fragile than we thought. If so, it will be because we are lucky, not because we are prudent.