Adapting to Facts on the Ground

Cesare Merlini
Cesare Merlini Former Brookings Expert, Chairman, Board of Trustees - Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome

May 13, 2011


When toward the end of February, President Obama was so reluctant to go beyond sanctions against Muammar Qaddafi and establish a no-fly zone over Libya, he was seen as a hesitant leader worldwide. But Obama and a few very close advisers around him knew something that the rest of us did not know. Flying objects of various kinds were zooming their sights on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the circle drawn by the CIA around Osama bin Laden was getting tighter and tighter. Thus, it was not simply that “of all countries in the region there, our real interests in Libya are minimal,” as former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroftwas reported as saying. The big hoped for event, bound to establish Obama’s image as Commander-in-Chief, was to happen elsewhere and develop in such a way as to translate the broad and vague “war on terror,” launched by his predecessor, into a very specific and very symbolic achievement: the killing of the mastermind of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, just a few months ahead of the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Eventually, Ambassador Susan Rice did vote for the UN Security Council resolution introduced by Britain and France, once the crucial protection of the Libyan civilians (those rebelling) was added to the no-fly prescription. Until then it was openly opposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But U.S. participation in military action has remained limited, almost unwilling. For once the Europeans – in contrast to how they dealt with Slobodan Milosevic – were taking action, thoughwith their customary divisions, including the surprising German abstention along with Russia and China in the UN Security Council vote.