COMMENT: Obama’s White House: on-the-fly zone —Dr Mohammad Taqi - Thursday, March 24, 2011

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COMMENT: Obama’s White House: on-the-fly zone —Dr Mohammad Taqi
The US and the allies may call the military campaign what they want but the no-fly zone, for all practical purposes, is an act of war and the fact of the matter is that Qaddafi himself is the endpoint in this war that cannot be circumvented

Geostrategic planning and global leadership has been likened by the old grandmasters of US foreign policy to a grand chessboard, where the strategy is contemplated several moves in advance, with an eye on the endgame. But the knee-jerk responses of Barack Obama’s administration to the rapidly unravelling situation in the Middle East and North Africa give an impression that he and his team are playing chequers, albeit in a manner as erratic as Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, if not more. From dithering on the US role in Egypt to weeks of waffling about Libya before actually jumping on the no-fly zone bandwagon, it seems like the White House is literally an on-the-fly zone, making up policy as it goes along.

As the western intervention in Libya entered its fourth day, it appears that President Obama may have allowed himself and the US to get sucked into a very messy situation in yet another Muslim country. Mr Obama had stated a couple of weeks ago that Qaddafi must “step down from power and leave”. Just when the Tomahawk missiles were being unleashed on Libya, Vice Admiral William E Gortney said at the Pentagon that Qaddafi himself is not a target, but his safety could not be guaranteed. Speaking on Sunday morning talk shows, Admiral Mike Mullen took the line that the Libyan dictator must “make decisions regarding his future in the country” but reiterated that the goal of the attacks was not to oust him. Taken at face value, these comments appear somewhat innocuous and are designed to placate the war-weary American public but they also reflect the confusion and bickering within the various factions of the Obama administration.

The stated US military objective in Libya is the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which calls for forces loyal to Qaddafi to pull back from rebel-held towns, and the establishment of a no-fly zone, ostensibly, to protect Libyan civilians from attack by Qaddafi’s forces. Additionally, the mandate includes opening up access for civilians to food, water and other humanitarian supplies. If these stated objectives are achieved, with the rebels protected in some of the towns like Benghazi while Qaddafi remains in power, the implication will be a stalemate — the only thing the American people dread more than a war.

The US and the allies may call the military campaign what they want but the no-fly zone, for all practical purposes, is an act of war and the fact of the matter is that Qaddafi himself is the endpoint in this war that cannot be circumvented. Without a clearly defined disposition for Qaddafi, the situation may appear to be a replay of the 1991 attack against Saddam Hussein with similar dire consequences for the civilian population. And while the chief of the US African Command, General Carter Ham officially denies it, the implication for the US would be a “mission creep”, i.e. the indiscernible but inevitable transition from a limited intervention to an extensive involvement in a war that it did not wish to be involved in, in the first place.

While Mr Obama’s instincts have been right all along during the recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, there has been a disconnect between his thoughts and actions. This has resulted at times in indecision, delay and thus inaction, for which he has compensated by playing catch-up in undue haste. It is amazing that the US, which is providing the bulk of military muscle in the present campaign, was forced to fall in line by Nikolas Sarkozy with his “France has decided to assume its role, its role before history” bravado. What France, what role and which history? When was the last time the French were able to prosecute any war on their own? If it were not for Mr Obama’s vacillating leadership, Sarkozy — with his single aircraft carrier and 35 jets — would not have let loose Mirage sorties above the Libyan skies while the Paris Summit was still underway this past Sunday.

But Sarkozy was not without help from inside Mr Obama’s cabinet. Hillary Clinton, along with the National Security Council staffer Samantha Power and the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice was able to sway Mr Obama towards the French position. The trio, dubbed Obama’s female hawks, was able to prevail despite the advice from the Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the intelligence and military bosses. The question is not if Mr Obama should or should not have acted but that he could have acted on his own timeframe, terms and yes, reasons. If the underlying premise of intervention is saving civilians from their ruthless rulers, then who is to say that the Bahraini, Yemeni or the Syrian protestors are not deserving of US support. Mr Obama’s instinct to support the popular pro-democracy struggles around the world is right, but cherry-picking which Arab dictators to send troops against, especially when holding the fig leaf of UN resolutions, is not going to go down well with the Arab people.

The way the coalition against Qaddafi is unravelling, with the Arab League changing its stance twice daily and a resolute Turkey effectively blocking NATO taking the leadership, the chances are that Mr Obama may have to think quick to extricate the US from yet another war lest he is left alone to clean up the mess. Add to this the fact that the US Congress had not been informed and was not involved in the decision to go to war, resulting in both the Democrats and the Republicans being up in arms. Mr Obama will be returning home to some very angry supporters and opponents, especially if the news from the Mediterranean sours.

Without defining the US interests involved, explaining the political objectives of the military campaign and delineating the endgame, Mr Obama has set himself for a serious political setback at home, if his Libyan campaign is not able to produce “positive” results within days. If thousands of civilian lives were not on the line, one might be tempted to say that the Operation Odyssey Dawn is looking more and more like an operation Charlie Foxtrot for the Obama White House.

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