What are we doing with those ships moving toward Libya?
The United States began moving warships toward Libya and froze $30 billion in the country's assets on Monday as the administration declared all options on the table in its diplomatic, economic and military campaign to drive Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration was conferring with allies about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. Such a move would likely be carried out only under a mandate from the United Nations or NATO, but Mrs. Clinton's blunt confirmation that it was under consideration was clearly intended to ratchet up the pressure on Colonel Qaddafi and his dwindling band of loyalists.
But then some eager anonymous staffers couldn't resist assuring the Times that this was mostly a bluff ("officials in Washington and elsewhere said that direct military action remained unlikely, and that the moves were designed as much as anything as a warning to Colonel Qaddafi and a show of support to the protesters seeking to overthrow his government"). Thanks, guys.
I asked some Middle East and military gurus what the Obama administration might be up to.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me via e-mail last night:
We've seen marked changes in the administration's approach to Libya since U.S. citizens left Libya three days ago. From timidity, to direct calls for Qaddaffi's departure, to announcing that we would provide direct support to anti-government forces, and now the arrival of warships. This is a rapid escalation. I have serious doubts that this White House would deploy troops on Libyan soil. However, I do see this as a means to enforce a no-fly zone. It could also be a means to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid to areas that NGOs report have been near-impossible to reach. This is also a bit of psychological warfare, of course. The mere threat of US firepower will not be lost on Qaddaffi, who remembers the U.S. bombing raid on Libya, ordered by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, that killed his adopted daughter.
"Psychological warfare" might work better if Obama officials would keep their traps shut.
Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute remained skeptical. He told me that it "seems like the carriers are very much in the 'moving to the area' stage rather than 'launch strikes now' stage, though I hope I'm wrong about that." He cautioned that ousting Gaddafi wouldn't be enough: "We want not only to get Gaddafi out but do what we can to ensure that it doesn't require a bloodbath or lead to one after, or al-Qaeda or any of the potential other bad outcomes. Also, it seemed like Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice crossed a rhetorical threshold (if Biden hadn't already done so), so we're committed, and will look very bad if [some decisive action] doesn't happen soon."
The administration, after trying to be invisible, is now beginning to exert itself. But how much credibility and resolve do we have? Not much, I fear.
| March 1, 2011; 10:10 AM ET
Categories: foreign policy
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