President Obama walks from Marine One with Col. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander, 89th Airlift Wing, to board Air Force One last month at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Obama is facing the sternest test yet of his philosophy of humanitarian intervention, which he has described as an imperative to prevent atrocities against civilians. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — A month shy of his election in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama outlined a doctrine for American military force that included crises in which the United States has a "moral obligation" to intervene. As commander in chief, he soon will have to decide whether Libya fits the bill.
Obama is facing the sternest test yet of his philosophy of humanitarian intervention, which he has described as an imperative to prevent atrocities against civilians.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's brutal suppression of protests and crackdown on opponents to his 42-year rule may fall short of Obama's criteria for military action, but the president's most senior advisers are to meet Wednesday to outline what steps are realistic and possible to pressure Gadhafi to halt the violence and give up power.
The discussion at the White House was to examine the ramifications of a no-fly zone over Libya and other potential military options, although the final decision will rest with Obama, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.
In a no-fly zone operation over all or part of Libya, the U.S. or partner nations would patrol with warplanes to deter Gadhafi from using his air force to bomb civilians. Targeted aerial assaults, with planes or missiles, are another possibility.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, national security adviser Tom Donilon and CIA Director Leon Panetta were among those expected to attend Wednesday's meeting, the officials said. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is abroad, but a top Pentagon official will attend in his place.
The Obama administration has little enthusiasm for military intervention in Libya or for the no-fly zone in particular. Gates has said that beginning the flights would require an assault on Libyan air defenses, a step tantamount to war, and other officials have noted that the tactic may be ineffective in part because Gadhafi appears to be using his planes sparingly. Nonetheless, a no-fly zone has become the best-known option and the one that European allies, in particular, consider an effective international response.
In an interview Tuesday, Clinton stressed that any authorization of a no-fly zone must come from the United Nations Security Council.
"We think it's important that the United Nations make this decision — not the United States," Clinton told Britain's Sky News.
Two and a half years ago, candidate Obama called for action even when "we may not always have national security issues at stake, but we have moral issues at stake." He even spoke about how the establishment of no-fly zones could prevent attacks on innocent civilians.
"When genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world and we stand idly by, that diminishes us," Obama said in October 2008 in his second presidential debate with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "We have to consider it as part of our interests, our national interests, in intervening where possible."
So far, Obama is talking tough. He has demanded Gadhafi move aside so that the democratic transitions like those gripping neighboring Tunisia and Egypt can get under way in Libya. And he has vowed that the international community will hold senior Libyan officials accountable for their crimes.
Yet his words have yet to be backed by forceful action. And it's unclear whether Libya's crisis is so extreme that it meets his criteria for a U.S. attack. Gadhafi's crackdown may be cruel, but it falls far short of genocide. And Obama has always offered words of caution.
"Understand that there's a lot of cruelty around the world," Obama noted in the debate with McCain. "We're not going to be able to be everywhere all the time."
Asked about his doctrine again last week, Obama said he would examine the "full range of options," from diplomatic to military responses.
"I don't want us hamstrung," he told reporters at a news conference.
But, he stressed at the same time, decisions would aim to secure the "best for the Libyan people" and be made in consultation with key allies abroad. The U.S. already has led international efforts to block assets linked to the Libyan government and punish those closest to Gadhafi. Still, he allowed that may not be enough to head off a bloody stalemate.
Obama spoke Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron and the two agreed that their common objective was "an immediate end to brutality and violence," as well as Gadhafi's speedy departure and an eventual transition to democracy, a White House statement said.
Constraining the administration are questions over the support and presumed efficacy of various military options.
Britain and France are pushing for the U.N. to create a no-fly zone over Libya, and while the U.S. may be persuaded to sign on, such a move is unlikely to win the backing of veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, which traditionally object to such steps as infringements on national sovereignty.
At home, there is pushback from U.S. military leaders who are trying to wind down long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and don't want to plunge into another conflict in the Muslim world. Some in the administration don't want to be burdened with the costs and logistical challenge in enforcing the no-fly zone. And there are questions over its usefulness against a Libyan army that is mostly fighting on the ground or with hard-to-detect helicopters.
The same domestic and international challenges certainly would affect a bolder military response, from U.S. airstrikes to the remote possibility of a ground invasion. They also would affect any attempt to arm the rebels fighting Gadhafi's forces.
The U.S. could simply offer a greater show of military force a dozen miles off the Libyan coast, possibly moving ships into international waters in the Gulf of Sidra. Surveillance flights, intelligence gathering and ongoing support for evacuations and humanitarian assistance are other softer military options.
If the president sticks to the campaign doctrine he outlined — in that instance, he was talking about mass deaths in Sudan's Darfur region — he may not be able to promise much of anything militarily against Gadhafi.
"We could be providing logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone at relatively little cost to us," Obama said. "But we can only do it if we can help mobilize the international community and lead. And that's what I intend to do when I'm president."