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For Obama, a moment to savour

Mark Landler
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U.S. President Barack Obama making a statement on Libya at Martha's Vineyard, on Monday. — PHOTO: REUTERS
U.S. President Barack Obama making a statement on Libya at Martha's Vineyard, on Monday. — PHOTO: REUTERS

President Obama was a reluctant warrior in Libya, drawn into the rebel uprising over the warnings of his Pentagon chief and his own qualms about getting the United States entangled in yet another war in the Muslim world.

Now that the rebels have seized most of Tripoli and driven Col. Muammar el-Gadhafi into hiding, Mr. Obama claimed a victory for his much-doubted strategy. But that victory is tinged by the same uncertainties that made the President so wary of getting involved in the first place.

With Colonel Gadhafi's loyalists still fighting in pockets, the United States and its allies are confronting a chaotic, potentially treacherous transition. They must help Libya's new rulers — people they did not know six months ago — set up a functioning, credible government in a country divided by tribal conflicts and a dearth of state institutions.

Mr. Obama acknowledged those hurdles, interrupting his vacation here to praise the rebel advances, even as the fighting continued and the whereabouts of Colonel Gadhafi remained a mystery.

“Your courage and character have been unbreakable in the face of a tyrant,” the President said in a sombre seven-minute address. He urged the Libyan Transitional National Council, which the United States recently recognised as the country's legitimate government, to pursue a peaceful, inclusive transition to democracy.

“True justice will not come from reprisals and violence,” Mr. Obama said. “It will come from reconciliation and a Libya that allows its citizens to determine their own destiny.”

“In that effort,” he added, “the United States will be a friend and a partner.”

Unlike Egypt, Tunisia

That could be difficult long-term partnership, analysts said. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, which had established institutions to smooth the transition from long-time dictators, Colonel Gadhafi's “revolution” — essentially a four-decade-long cult of personality — has left little for a new government to build on.

“They are basically starting from scratch,” said Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Now will really be the test for the United States, because there are a lot of centrifugal forces that could pull this apart.”

Republicans who had criticised Mr. Obama's handling of Libya, including the presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., were more muted on Monday, with Mr. Romney shifting attention from the military campaign to the need to extradite those behind the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

While the President's tone was determinedly not triumphal, his aides insisted that the weekend's events had vindicated his strategy — heading off mass killings in the eastern city of Benghazi, marshalling a broad coalition to press Colonel Gadhafi, giving the Libyan opposition time to take root and plan a transition, and, above all, limiting American involvement. “All of this was done without putting a single U.S. troop on the ground,” Mr. Obama noted.

Even now, though, he appeared less personally invested in Libya than he has in other big issues. Though he spoke to his National Security Council and to Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain before his remarks, he went right back to his vacation, playing basketball with aides. (Mr. Cameron cancelled his holiday to hold meetings in London.)

A wary approach

At first, the President's wary approach seemed to satisfy no one — hawks in Congress who called for boots on the ground, doves who demanded a pullout and foreign policy experts who warned of a quagmire. Those doubts only deepened as the NATO military campaign that Mr. Obama had suggested would last weeks dragged into months.

On Monday, administration officials argued that six months was not long in the context of Colonel Gadhafi's 42-year reign, and that the coalition was critically important in sustaining pressure on him. “This was a unique operation in that the U.S. wasn't left to bear the bulk of the burden itself,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Adviser. “The burden was spread effectively wide that we were more than able to sustain the pressure for six months, and frankly, would have been able to for many more months to come.”

For all that, Mr. Obama seems unlikely to get much political pay-off from the events in Libya. Part of the reason stems from his multilateral approach — very different, for example, from the commando raid he ordered on Osama bin Laden. That gave him a measurable bounce in the polls, though it, too, proved fleeting as anxieties about the economy crept back.

Nor is it likely to improve his relations with Republicans in Congress. Two Republican hawks — Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — said Mr. Obama did not deserve credit because the operation had taken too long. They attributed that “to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower.”

On Monday, those who supported the campaign — largely Democrats — offered tempered encouragement, urging the United States to step up its involvement in Libya. But several Democrats also called for the focus to turn to Pam Am Flight 103.

“The release of al-Megrahi was a total miscarriage of justice,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, referring to Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, one of the convicted masterminds of the bombing, who was released by Britain and returned to Libya.

“Seeing him participate in good health at a pro-Gadhafi rally recently was another slap in the face not just for the families of the Lockerbie victims, but for all Americans,” she said.

Mr. Obama paid homage to those victims, as well as other Americans who had been killed by Libyan-sponsored terrorism. That subtly reinforced another point: on this President's watch, another violent strongman who vexed Washington for many years was gone.

While officials said they did not expect that to help the President in the polls especially, it could help him counter a narrative that often dogs Democratic Presidents in elections.

“It helps lock in and solidify the idea that he's the guy who keeps us safe,” one senior official said. “Reagan targeted Gadhafi; George W. Bush targeted Bin Laden; Obama has done both.” ( Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting from Washington .) — © New York Times News Service

It seems unlikely that he will get much political pay-off from the events in Libya.


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