Tue March 1, 2011

Obama Walks Political Tightrope On Libya

When protesters took to the streets in Cairo, President Obama spoke early and often, mentioning the crisis in front of TV cameras five times in two weeks.

But the unrest in Libya presents a very different set of political challenges for the White House, and President Obama has responded largely by working behind the scenes.

In his only public comment on Libya thus far, Obama did not call for Gadhafi to leave.

"The Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need, and to respect the rights of its people," the president said last week.

At that point, Americans were still stuck in Tripoli. Once they reached safety, the president called German Chancellor Angela Merkel. According to the White House, Obama said Gadhafi "needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now."

That was three days ago. Other administration officials have stepped up to the microphone since then.

In Geneva on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was blunt in expressing the U.S. view of Moammar Gadhafi's future in Libya.

"We want him to leave, and we want him to end his regime and call off the mercenaries," Clinton said.

At the White House on Monday, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice called Gadhafi delusional.

"When he can laugh in talking to American and international journalists while he is slaughtering his own people, it only underscores how unfit he is to lead, and how disconnected he is from reality."

White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked Tuesday why President Obama hasn't been very vocal on the crisis on Libya. Carney said that presidential action takes many different shapes.

"Not everything we do comes in the form of a speech or an announcement," he said.

Carney said the president may talk about Libya when Mexican President Felipe Calderon visits the White House on Thursday. Officials are also looking for an opportunity in the next few weeks for Obama make a broader speech about changes in the region.

Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations is scratching his head. He says the president's voice is a powerful megaphone, and it could be useful right now.

"For too long we were associated with repressive regimes, and this alienated us from the people of the Middle East," he says. "Now, we're in a situation where we can actually look like we stand up for the very principles that we embody at home."

But there's also a risk.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch warns that overusing the presidential megaphone diminishes its impact.

"I'm a strong believer in the power of presidential words, and sometimes all you've got is words. But in this case, they've got so many other, far more tangible tools."

Malinowski says Gadhafi's generals might not notice what President Obama said, but they'll definitely notice American naval vessels heading toward Libya.

"With Egypt, you had perhaps greater use of the bully pulpit, but far more limited American action. With Libya, virtually every tool in the toolbox of American power is now being employed."

Already there are travel bans and an arms embargo on Libya. The U.S. Treasury Department froze $30 billion in Libyan assets. The U.N. Security Counsel passed sanctions and referred the situation to the international criminal court. And NATO allies are looking at imposing a no-fly zone.

The question is whether any of those tools are ultimately strong enough to force Gadhafi from power. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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