Obama Refines Talk of Libya Intervention

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The Obama administration has spoken with two voices on Libya.

On the one hand Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly said that “nothing is off the table so long as the Libyan Government continues to threaten and kill Libyans.” That talk has been amplified by calls from the Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry and Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain for the immediate imposition of a no fly zone over Libya.

On the other hand, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress that “there’s a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options,” and suggested that a no fly zone would be harder to impose than people thought, a position echoed by the head of CentCom, Gen. James Matthis, who said such an operation would be “challenging.”

So which is it? Is the U.S. steaming towards military intervention or is it going to stand by and let the Libyans fight it out themselves? The simple answer is neither. The U.S. is not going to launch military strikes just to try and remove Gaddafi. Neither is it going to watch and do nothing if he begins a real slaughter.

Obama clarified the U.S. position today, saying that he wanted to make sure “the United States has full capacity to act — potentially rapidly — if the situation deteriorated in such a way that you had a humanitarian crisis on our hands or a situation in which civilians were — defenseless civilians were finding themselves trapped and in great danger.” He said that capacity to act included: possible military action in concert with other countries; opening humanitarian corridors into Libya to provide food or other supplies; and delivering aid outside the country. He announced that he had authorized U.S. military planes to carry non-Libyan refugees who have fled to Egypt and Tunisia back to their home countries.

Obama has the luxury of preparing rather than acting because Gaddafi has restrained himself in recent days. That is thanks to extensive behind the scenes diplomacy by countries like Turkey, and perhaps also the threat of international action. So for the time being, the U.S. will continue to prepare for the possibility of intervention should Gaddafi revert to killing large numbers of civilians, while quietly trying to squeeze Gaddafi out of power.

Here are Obama’s full comments on Libya Thursday:

I want to address the situation in Libya. The United States and the entire world continues to be outraged by the appalling violence against the Libyan people. The United States is helping to lead an international effort to deter further violence, put in place unprecedented sanctions to hold the Gadhafi government accountable and support the aspirations of the Libyan people.

We are also responding quickly to the urgent humanitarian needs that are developing. Tens of thousands of people from many different countries are fleeing Libya. And we commend the governments of Tunisia and Egypt for their response, even as they go through their own political transitions.

I have therefore approved the use of U.S. military aircraft to help move Egyptians who have fled to the Tunisian border to get back home to Egypt. I’ve authorized USAID to charter additional civilian aircraft to help people from other countries find their way home. And we’re supporting the efforts of international organizations to evacuate people as well.

I’ve also directed USAID to send humanitarian assistance teams to the Libyan border, so that they can work with the United Nations, NGOs and other international partners inside Libya to address the urgent needs of the Libyan people.

Going forward, we will continue to send a clear message: The violence must stop. Moammar Gadhafi has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave. Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable. And the aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity must be met.

With respect to Libya, I think you asked about, sir, do I have a doctrine. My approach throughout the convulsions that have swept through the Middle East is, number one, no violence against citizens; number two, that we stand for freedom and democracy. And in the situation in Libya, what you’ve seen is, number one, violence against citizens, and the active urging of violence against unarmed citizens by Gadhafi.

And number two, you have seen great — with great clarity that he has lost legitimacy with his people.

And so let me just be very unambiguous about this. Colonel Gadhafi needs to step down from power and leave. That is good for his country. It is good for his people. It’s the right thing to do.

Those around him have to understand that violence that they perpetrate against innocent civilians will be monitored and they will be held accountable for it. And so to the extent that they are making calculations in their own minds about which way history is moving, they should know history is moving against Colonel Gadhafi and that, you know, their support for him and their willingness to carry out orders that are — direct violence against citizens is something that ultimately they will be held accountable for.

With respect to our willingness to engage militarily, what I’ve instructed the Department of Defense, as well as our State Department and all those who are involved in international affairs, to examine is a full range of options. I don’t want us hamstrung. I want us to be making our decisions based on what’s going to be best for the Libyan people in consultation with the international community.

And we are doing that not just here in the United States within our own agencies, but we’re also doing it in consultation with NATO.

We have already engineered the most rapid and forceful set of sanctions that have ever been applied internationally. We started unilaterally freezing $30 billion worth of assets, imposing severe sanctions against those in the Libyan government who’ve been carrying out some of these crimes. And as a consequence of that leadership, what we’ve seen is I think broad-based mobilization around the international community.

You are right that there is a danger of a stalemate that over time could be bloody. And that is something that we’re obviously considering. So what I want to make sure of is, is that the United States has full capacity to act — potentially rapidly — if the situation deteriorated in such a way that you had a humanitarian crisis on our hands or a situation in which civilians were — defenseless civilians were finding themselves trapped and in great danger.

I think it’s very important for us to do this in consultation, though, with the international community. One of the extraordinary successes of Egypt was the full ownership that the Egyptian people felt for that transformation. That has served the Egyptian people well; it serves U.S. interests well. We did not see anti-American sentiment arising out of that movement in Egypt precisely because they felt that we hadn’t tried to engineer or impose a particular outcome, but rather they owned it. The same is happening in Tunisia. And I think that the region will be watching carefully to make sure we’re on the right side of history, but also that we are doing so as a member of the world community and being willing to act on behalf of these values but doing so in a way that takes all the various equities into account.

So just to — to put sort of the final point on it, we are looking at every option that’s out there, in addition to the non- military actions that we’ve taken. I want to make sure that those full range of options are available to me. Some of them may end up being humanitarian. I mean, the biggest priority that we have right now is you’ve got tens of thousand people — tens of thousands of people who are gathered at the border, and we got to make sure that they can get home. And that’s why we’ve — we’re using some of our military aircrafts in addition to civilian aircrafts to help on that front.

There may be situations in which Gadhafi is hunkered down in his compound but the economy — or food-distribution systems in Tripoli, for example, start deteriorating. And we’re going to have to figure out how do we potentially get food in there.

So there are a whole range of options, military and non-military, that we’re examining. And we’ll be making these decisions based on what’s best for the Libyan people and how can we make sure that we’re minimizing the harm to innocent civilians during this process.

Throughout all this, we will continue to send a clear message that it’s time for Gadhafi to go.