U.S. Tactics in Libya May Be a Model for Other Efforts

It would be premature to call the war in Libya a complete success for United States interests. But the arrival of victorious rebels on the shores of Tripoli last week gave President Obama's senior advisers a chance to claim a key victory for an Obama doctrine for the Middle East that had been roundly criticized in recent months as leading from behind.

Administration officials say that even though the NATO intervention in Libya, emphasizing airstrikes to protect civilians, cannot be applied uniformly in other hotspots like Syria, the conflict may, in some important ways, become a model for how the United States wields force in other countries where its interests are threatened.

"We've resisted the notion of a doctrine, because we don't think you can impose one model on very different countries; that gets you into trouble and can lead you to intervene in places that you shouldn't," said Ben Rhodes, the director for strategic communications at the National Security Council.

Even so, he said, the Libya action helped to establish two principles for when the United States could apply military force to advance its diplomatic interests even though its national security is not threatened directly.

Mr. Obama laid out those principles on March 28, when he gave his only big address on the Libya conflict, in a speech at George Washington University that in many ways established the principles of the Obama doctrine.

During that speech, Mr. Obama said that America had the responsibility to stop what he characterized as a looming genocide in the Libyan city of Benghazi (Principle 1). But at the same time, he said, when the safety of Americans is not directly threatened but where action can be justified -- in the case of genocide, say -- the United States will act only on the condition that it is not acting alone (Principle 2).

And so, with Libya, the United States used its might -- providing crucial cruise missiles, aircraft, bombs, intelligence and even military personnel -- but it did so as part of the larger NATO coalition, led by the French and the British and including Arab nations.

And it did so only after a United Nations Security Council resolution authorized the kind of multilateral approach that had been viewed with disdain by Mr. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.

In fact, American officials argued, the Libya strategy worked in large part because it was perceived as an international effort against a brutal dictator and "not a U.S. go-it-alone approach," as one senior administration official put it.

" 'Made only in the U.S.A.' would have risked it becoming Qaddafi versus the U.S.A.," the official said.

But any speculation that the Libya model could be transferrable to the next obvious place, Syria, where the United States and its European allies have called for President Bashar al-Assad to leave, might be a bit hasty.

For now at least, the administration and its allies in the Libya action have stopped far short of threatening military force in Syria. Still, the officials argue that creating the broadest possible diplomatic pressure -- what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week called an "international chorus of condemnation" -- could ultimately have an effect and, if Mr. Assad continues his violent crackdown on dissenters, lay the foundation for more aggressive action.

"How much we translate to Syria remains to be seen," the senior official said, citing differences among the many Arab nations experiencing upheaval. "The Syrian opposition doesn't want foreign military forces but do want more countries to cut off trade with the regime and break with it politically."

Robert Malley, head analyst for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, said a military intervention in Syria could present a host of challenges that the United States and its allies did not face against Libya.

"What distinguishes Syria from Libya is there is neither regional nor international consensus on Syria," Mr. Malley said. "There's no specific area of the country to come in and defend. The opposition in Syria doesn't hold any territory. And Syria has many ways it could retaliate to make life difficult."

[Source: By Helene Cooper and Steven Lee Myers, NYT, 28Aug11]

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