Pro and con in Washington on Libya

Although the natural disaster in Japan has dominated the American newspapers’ front pages this weekend, it is the civil war in Libya that primarily occupies the foreign policy deliberations of the Obama Administration, and an American decision seems fast approaching.

At Friday’s press conference, President Obama claimed “no option is off the table” and that the noose around Gaddafi’s neck is slowly tightening. He maintained that it is in America’s interest that Gaddafi goes, but he gave no indication of what steps his administration may take to make that happen.  

It is precisely this fact that is behind the comments about the president’s indecision on Libya. The voices are conservative, led by Senator John McCain, but include Democratic Senator John Kerry.  Some of these voices have little credibility, such as the man behind the Iraq war Paul Wolfowitz, as Maureen Dowd rightly points out in her Sunday column in The New York Times.

In fact, it is understandable that a president, who was elected largely because of his criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not keen to venture into a third war in the Middle East, if that is not absolutely necessary.  And, clearly, he does not seem to think so yet.  

Obama’s prudence is supported by a number of leading voices in the American foreign policy establishment. Representatives of the major think tanks, Brookings, Carnegie Endowment and the Council on Foreign Relations, such as Ken Pollack, Jessica Mathews and Richard Haass, all support the president’s apparent intention to weigh all options and carefully consider what can be done. They warn against a U.S. military action, including the much talked about “no-fly zone.”

These voices reflect the same caution that the military establishment has already expressed, led by Secretary Gates.  In Sunday’s Washington Post, another military leader joined in when the retired General and former NATO Commander Wesley Clark sharply warned America to engage in Libya. What are our purposes and objectives in Libya, Clark asked. We should have learned our lesson from our past many interventions, and we do not need to Libya to learn a new lesson about past mistakes.

At the same time, pressure on the Obama Administration to act is growing. The Arab League’s support for a “no-fly zone” and its call for the UN Security Council to endorse such action, as well as the League’s recognition of the Libyan rebels have all been welcomed by Washington, but  these decisions have also increased the pressure on Washington.   

Secretary Clinton’s travel on Monday for talks with the Libyan rebels and Tuesday’s NATO meeting can be decisive as to future U.S. operations.  It is clear that America wants to get rid of Gaddafi, but the question is how?