March 17, 2011 7:19 pm

Washington explains rethink on no-fly zone

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The Obama administration scrambled on Thursday to explain why, after days of expressing doubts about a no-fly zone over Libya, it was supporting a UN resolution that would establish just that.

As the Pentagon stepped up planning meetings on Libya, William Burns, the US’s top diplomat, told Congress Washington had become “increasingly concerned over the course of the last few days” about advances that have taken Muammer Gaddafi’s forces to within 160km of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and of the risk of a humanitarian disaster.

“There is also a very real danger that if Gaddafi is successful on the ground, that you will also face a number of other considerable risks as well,” Mr Burns added. “The dangers of him returning to terrorism and violent extremism himself, the dangers of the turmoil that he could help create at a very critical moment elsewhere in the region.”

But officials also acknowledge other important factors behind Washington’s late endorsement of a measure whose effectiveness it was questioning as recently as Tuesday and which it continues to regard as insufficient to turn the tide in Libya itself.

Chief among these are the Arab League’s endorsement of a no-fly zone at the weekend, but the US’s hand was also forced by an emotional appeal by Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, to leaders of the other countries on the UN Security Council to act “without delay” on a no-fly zone.

The Pentagon in particular has been irritated by the Franco-British push for a no-fly zone. Its own doubts about the effectiveness of such a zone were aired early in the crisis by both Robert Gates, US defence secretary, and Adm Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The state department and the White House both view Egypt and indeed Bahrain as much more strategically important than Libya.

But the administration has decided that it should not resist an initiative championed both by the region and its own strongest European allies, and which may now include more effective measures than a no-fly zone.

Pentagon planners have been looking at options such as establishing “safe zones” for Libyans to shelter from Col Gaddafi’s forces – which could be authorised by UN language calling for the protection of Libyan civilians.

In particular, officials have been alarmed by the prospect that Benghazi might fall – which could have reverberations throughout the region, countering the example of Egypt’s revolution, and be seen in the US as a sign of Mr Obama’s cynicism or impotence.

In one striking broadside, Anne-Marie Slaughter, until recently head of policy at the state department, tweeted: “US is defining ‘vital strategic interest’ in terms of oil and geography, not universal values. Wrong call that will come back to haunt us.”

US officials argue that it was unilateral military action – rather than military action per se – that the US opposed; that other measures in a resolution may prove at least as significant as a no-fly zone and, in a sign of the administration’s relatively diffident international approach, that it could be counterproductive for the US to champion intervention.

In a comment that signalled Washington’s lack of interest in taking the lead, Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, said on Wednesday: “If there is international decision in the Security Council, then the US will join with the international community.”

She added: “One thing that we are clear about is unilateral action would have unintended consequences that we cannot undertake.”

But the administration’s seeming last-minute conversion has opened it up to criticism from all sides – from those who called for clear leadership and those who remain wary of ever-growing military intervention.

“Their handling of it is incomprehensible,” said Elliott Abrams, a White House adviser to former president George W. Bush. “They have taken a strong position that Gaddafi must go and that it is in the interest of the US he should go, and they have done nothing.”

“At this point a no-fly zone really does no good with Gaddafi,” said Bob Corker, US senator for Tennessee, suggesting that the discussions about a zone were simply the US “just trying to act as if we had done something”.

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