LAMBRO: Obama’s Libyan dalliance

Halfhearted help for rebels won’t expel Gadhafi

President Obama seems to have trouble giving the Libyan rebels what they need most in their life-and-death struggle to topple Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s repressive dictatorship: weapons.

As Col. Gadhafi’s well-armed forces continue to pound the rebel-held western city of Misrata, killing and wounding civilians and rebels alike, Mr. Obama was sending these brave insurgents $25 million worth of “nonlethal” equipment that included uniforms, tents and vehicles.

But the equipment these poorly outfitted rebels lack most is the lethal kind - ground missiles, grenade launchers, tanks and other high-powered weaponry - not just to hold the territory they’ve taken but to inflict enough casualties on Col. Gadhafi’s mercenaries to convince the Libyan leader that he must flee the country.

Despite weeks of attacks on civilian populations and the rebels in places like Misrata, Mr. Obama was still trying to abide by the United Nations’ “civilian protection” mandate that apparently forbids arming the rebels. But his resistance to doing anything more than providing nonlethal assistance, including logistical, humanitarian and other forms of support, has emboldened Col. Gadhafi and his armies to step up their efforts to crush the rebel uprising once and for all.

Mr. Obama’s military withdrawal from his brief air offensive - handing over responsibility to NATO forces - clearly has not worked. It was seen in much of the world as a cut-and-run decision based in large part on political consequences in the 2011-12 election cycle that could threaten his re-election bid.

In the aftermath of the U.S. departure, the NATO air offensive by Britain and France was to a large degree seen as ineffective, as the rebels were forced out of port cities and other territory by heavily armed Libyan forces. In many cases, Gadhafi troops entered cities where NATO warplanes could not hit them for fear of striking civilian populations.

This week, amid the realization that Col. Gadhafi was winning the war, the United States and its allies France, Britain and Italy were sending military advisers and other assistance. But these efforts may be too little, too late.

“The arrival of European military advisers and U.S. uniforms is unlikely to rapidly change the trajectory of the conflict, however, and NATO and its Arab partners in the Libya operation continue to count on their economic and diplomatic war of attrition against Gadhafi paying off in the end,” national security reporter Karen DeYoung wrote in The Washington Post’s lead story Thursday.

Mr. Obama and his advisers continue to believe that in the end, their economic actions to freeze Libyan bank accounts will tighten the noose around Col. Gadhafi, but that doesn’t seem to be the case so far.

This week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden was sent out to defend Mr. Obama’s actions, denying that the U.S. military withdrawal had, in effect, weakened NATO’s air campaign and undermined the rebel’s cause.

“It is bizarre to suggest that NATO and the rest of the world lack the capacity to deal with Libya - it does not,” Mr. Biden told the Financial Times.

“Occasionally, other countries lack the will, but this is not about capacity,” he said.

“This is about our strategic interest and it is not based upon a situation of what can the traffic bear politically at home,” he said. Sure. Nevertheless, the latest polls here showed that a large number of Americans were not happy with the way Mr. Obama “is handling the situation in Libya.”

A Washington Post survey found that 49 percent now disapprove of his handling of the Libyan conflict, up sharply from 34 percent in March. Significantly, 56 percent said they supported “the participation of U.S. military aircraft” in the NATO air campaign offensive, while 40 percent opposed it.

Still, Mr. Obama shows no sign of getting further involved in the Libyan conflict, even to help arm the rebels against Col. Gadhafi’s army, which now seems poised to defeat a ragtag rebellion seeking to liberate their country from tyranny.

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