March 18, 2011

Middle East Tensions Present Obama Administration With Unique Challenges

As Muammar Gaddafi’s forces race to crush the ragged remnants of the month-old Libyan rebellion with "no mercy,” the Obama administration ended weeks of indecision by helping push the U.N. Security Council to authorize a no-fly zone to protect that country's civilians.

But with Gaddafi’s forces poised to storm the last rebel hold-out in the eastern city of Benghazi, any outside military action may be too little and perhaps too late to force the erratic Libyan strongman from power. Libyan TV quoted Gaddafi as promising the approaching battles will be "decisive."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama had ordered U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to negotiate the Security Council resolution authorizing steps the international community can take to “affect the situation on the ground [and] protect civilians in Libya." He and other administration officials declined to say what actions the United States might take under such a resolution. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed Thursday that the U.S. would act only in concert with other nations, preferably those from Arab states.

The Obama administration’s action comes a month after Libyans, who spontaneously rose in opposition to Gaddafi, pleaded for international help to force his regime from power. They took heart when President Obama declared forcefully that “It’s time for Gaddafi to go." That was March 3.

But in the intervening weeks, as Gaddafi’s forces closed in on the rebels and security forces in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia fought peaceful protesters with water cannons and bullets, the Obama administration seemed to bounce from one crisis to another without a coherent explanation of its strategy.

For decades, the United States has tried to build stability in the region -- and maintain its access to Persian Gulf oil -- with arms sales and military training, including a $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia proposed by the White House last fall.

The upwelling of public demands for political reform, however, have shaken that strategy. If the United States is justified in using force to protect the Libyan rebels, how should it protect the protest movements in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere that are being violently crushed by regimes whose security forces are armed and trained by the United States?

That question is especially acute in Bahrain, a tiny monarchy which is a critical strategic anchor for the United States: it hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet and the headquarters of the U.S. naval command for the entire region.

The administration appeared to be caught flat-footed this week as Saudi tanks and 2,000 troops rolled across the causeway into neighboring Bahrain, where Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had hours earlier urged the monarchy to take more than “baby steps" in meeting the demonstrator’s demands for political reform. Instead, the demonstrators were met with gunfire.

The situation in Yemen is equally dicey for American strategists. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has become a key U.S. ally in fighting a terrorist franchise of al Qaeda responsible for dispatching parcel bombs to the United States last fall. As in Bahrain, his regime has refused reform and used force against demonstrators. Where does the United States position itself?

“This is a moment you have to think strategically; how all these fit together," said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution. “You have to do that in foreign policy to avoid being run over by each successive crisis." At the moment, said O’Hanlon, the administration seems “overwhelmed."

Any international military action against Libya is bound to have repercussions. In a statement issued by his defense ministry, Gaddafi threatened to target civilian as well as military ships and aircraft in the Mediterranean in retaliation for any outside military action against Libya. “The Mediterranean basin will face danger not just in the short-term, but also in the long-term," said the statement, carried by the Reuters news agency.

In the midst of this cascade of national security crises -- Afghanistan and Pakistan are boiling over, and U.S. intelligence said they believe North Korea now has nuclear warheads for its missiles -- two key members of Obama’s national security team are in their last months in office. Gates has announced his intention to leave this year, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is due to retire in September.

The disarray in the administration’s strategic planning has been evident for weeks, with the White House conviction as late as last week that the rebels would hold out against Gaddafi’s rag-tag army. Tom Donilon, the President’s National Security Advisor, rejected the assessment of two top intelligence officers that Gaddafi had more guns and eventually would prevail over the lightly armed and untrained rebels.

“History is not on the side of Muammar Gaddafi; it is on the side of the Libyan people," his spokesman, Ben Rhodes, told reporters March 10.

Given the speed of explosive crises hammering the White House, these and other flubs were perhaps inevitable. The President’s national security team has little time to think of more than the next 24 hours.

“It’s like being a hockey goalie without much defense, having shots fired at you at 80 MPH from every conceivable direction," said Eric Edelman, who was the Pentagon’s top policy official from 2005 to 2009. “It’s very easy to get completely isolated inside the cocoon of 18-hour days in the Situation Room, thinking you’re master of the universe, moving pieces around the board without any understanding of what’s happening," Edelman said.

The President is being forced into the oldest and toughest quandary in foreign policy: how to balance America’s interests and its ideals, said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security. “I think the administration has been very clear about what our values are -- the use of force against civilians is not an American value," he said.

“But it’s not clear to me that every time a state uses force against its citizens the U.S. should intervene. The right thing to do," he said, “is to make public statements about our values, and engage in very cold-hearted analyses of our interests, and then try to find a balance point."

The Obama team is handicapped as it struggles to do just that, said O’Hanlon. Gates is “very good but he’s tired from managing two wars and it’s starting to show. Hillary (Clinton) has been a good secretary of state, a very thorough workhorse, but on an issue-by-issue basis. Donilon is very good on process, but he’s not a master grand strategist."

That leaves the White House looking “irresolute," said O’Hanlon, by failing to establish and articulate a clear strategy and priorities. Now, he said, “is the time to do that."