The chief challenge ahead for U.S. policy makers in Libya might be best summed up by the late, great Warren Zevon: Send lawyers, guns, and money.
Obama administration officials are trying to line up multilateral legal and diplomatic support behind their bid to launch a no-fly zone in order to curtail military action on the part of Muammer Gadhafi's brutal regime. At the same time, the Obama White House has made it clear that hasty unilateral action to remove Gadhafi would likely prove counterproductive, stressing the importance of rallying international consensus behind any proposed military intervention.
"We believe it's important that this not be an American or a NATO or a European effort," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CBS News Wednesday. "It needs to be an international one."
NATO defense ministers met in Brussels Thursday to discuss possible military options, including a no-fly zone. This confab comes after a week of daily contingency planning meetings as the trans-Atlantic military alliance began round-the-clock air surveillance over the North African nation. National governments also stepped up delivery of humanitarian aid for those injured and displaced by fighting in rebel-held eastern Libya. Russia on Thursday announced that it was banning arms shipments to Libya.
France on Thursday became the first country to formally recognize Libya's opposition National Council as the country's legitimate representative.
In the meantime, Gadhafi conducted an international lobbying campaign of his own, reportedly getting on the phone with South Africa's Jacob Zuma and Greece's George Papandreou. On Wednesday, he also reportedly sent emissaries to world capitals, including Cairo, for consultations with the Arab League to argue against international intervention.
U.S. humanitarian specialists said they were looking to a meeting of the Arab League over the weekend to possibly call for a military no-fly zone to prevent pro-Gadhafi forces from attacking rebel positions and civilians from the air.
"We will likely end up with a no-fly zone," said former United Nations official Bruce Jones, now a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. "Whether we get there in three days or five days, we will end up there."
Jones said a no-fly zone was emerging as the likely next step "because there's a shortage of other good options, there's pressure to do something, and I would say, there are the beginnings of a tilt towards open-mindedness on that on the part of the Chinese. Depending on how the negotiations go, I would not rule out full [UN Security] Council authorization for a no-fly zone."
"We would be vastly better off if it was the Arab League calling for action and the UN taking it up and the U.S. implementing," Jones said. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa—a key figure in the Egyptian pro-democracy movement that ousted Egypt's Preisdent Hosni Mubarak last month has raised the Arab League and African Union calling for a no-fly zone, Jones said, adding: "He's a key figure in this and very adept at using the Arab League."
With 150,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military leaders have made no secret of their reluctance to launch a third U.S. Middle East military intervention, even while some lawmakers and humanitarian groups are criticizing President Barack Obama for not acting more swiftly to remove Gadhafi.
Amid the conflicting pressures, some Washington Middle East analysts said the Obama administration appeared hamstrung; they suggested that the White House's own policy hands are divided on the best way to achieve internal consensus and mobilize international opinion on an effective course of action.
"The key diplomatic question is, is the U.S. willing to diplomatically mobilize to get other regional bodies to provide cover for international military action," said former State Department official Joel Rubin, now with the progressive National Security Network.
"Politics deplores a vacuum," Rubin continued, adding that if Washington doesn't lead the diplomatic effort to coordinate international action on Libya, "other countries are already [acting] in an ad hoc way and we can lose control of this. The key thing is, can we effectively create an avenue for the opposition forces to express their political goals, and can that be used to successfully mobilize western action in the way requested? They [the Libyan opposition forces] are not asking for America to put troops on the ground. But they like the idea of leveling" the military advantage enjoyed by Gadhafi's forces.
For its part, the White House fended off critics on Capitol Hill who've complained that it has not intervened more swiftly to remove Gadhafi. Administration officials insist that measured internal planning, international consultations, and caution will produce a more beneficial outcome in the long term. Such calculations seem to reflect the administration's broader agenda of shunning the unilateral interventionist legacy of the Bush White House in the region.
"We are engaged in a highly swift and coordinated effort to provide humanitarian assistance and we have also, through a variety of channels, reached out to the opposition to discuss what their goals are and what their situation is," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. "We have also done military contingency planning … and talked about positioning resources in the region for contingencies that might occur of all sorts."
"The actions we've taken have been dramatic, and we are implementing them in a way that we hope they will have an effect," Carney said.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement Robert Gelbard said the White House's caution is warranted.
"You've got to be very careful," Gelbard said. "Getting the Arab League involved is essential. The last thing the U.S. should be doing is [military intervention in Libya] when it's not been invited."
But former State Department official Ash Jain said that while there are certainly risks involved in international intervention in Libya, the risk of leaving Gadhafi in place is arguably greater.
"This is not an isolated uprising," Jain, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Wednesday. "This has to be viewed as part of a pattern taking hold across the Middle East. So if Gadhafi is able to hang on, that will reverberate throughout the region. … In terms of legitimacy, what is most important is what the Libyan people are asking for. And with the opposition leadership pleading for outside assistance, that alone establishes the moral legitimacy" for international intervention.
(Libyan doctors try to move the bodies of two men killed during clashes with pro-Moammar Gadhafi forces, March 10, 2011.: Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP)