How do you restrain a megalomaniacal despot with unlimited funds who has a history of slaughtering innocents and could disrupt energy flows from the world’s 9th largest petroleum exporting country? President Obama took a stab at it this evening, using the threat of “accountability” repeatedly in brief remarks from the White House. But his sternly worded statement did more to show just how volatile and out-of-control Libya has become as power slips from the brutal dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Obama had previously said little on the deteriorating situation there, issuing only a written statement last Friday. This afternoon, with Americans making their way out of the country, he said “We strongly condemn the use of violence in Libya” and “the suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable. So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya. These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop.”
Washington is not close to Gaddafi, and formulaic objections like those are unlikely to influence the dictator. So the president tried to get his attention with some multilateral options that seemed to target Gaddafi himself, though the president never mentioned him by name. Obama tried to sharpen yesterday’s oblique UN Security Council threat of “accountability”, by saying it had also been made by the EU, the Arab League, the African Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. “North and south, east and west, voices are being raised together to oppose suppression and support the rights of the Libyan people,” Obama said.
He then went further, saying that every option, including presumably military ones, might be on the table should Gaddafi follow through on his threats. Said Obama, “I’ve also asked my administration to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis. This includes those actions we may take and those we will coordinate with our allies and partners or those that we’ll carry out through multilateral institutions.” Obama then laid out the justification under international law for considering humanitarian intervention. “Like all governments, the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need and to respect the rights of its people. It must be held accountable for its failure to meet those responsibilities and face the cost of continued violations of human rights,” Obama said.
It is unlikely that the U.S. would lead a military intervention to Libya: American interests there are limited. Obama’s tough language is more an indication of how far outsiders will need to go to get Gaddafi’s attention.