- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2011

PARIS (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is in Paris for talks with European and other leaders on the crisis in Libya that will include a meeting with Libyan opposition figures as the Obama administration makes its first high-level contact with foes of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Amid opposition pleas for military intervention as forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi continue to forcefully reclaim rebel-held territory, Mrs. Clinton was to meet Monday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has taken the lead in recognizing an interim council as Libya’s legitimate government.

The United States has yet to decide on such recognition but has severed ties with the Libyan Embassy in Washington and boosted its outreach to the opposition while maintaining caution on a no-fly zone the rebels want.

In the meantime, U.S. concerns that the unrest roiling the broader Arab world may not produce the changes demanded by increasingly vocal and emboldened anti-government protesters are growing. Recent violent crackdowns on demonstrators in Yemen and Bahrain have fueled those fears, and Mrs. Clinton will travel from France to post-revolt Egypt and Tunisia to press transitional leaders there to make good on pledges for democratic reform.

Details on Mrs. Clinton’s meeting with the Libyan opposition in Paris were still being determined when she arrived, underscoring the administration’s lack of clarity as to who is who in the movement that has sprung up to topple Col. Gadhafi from the perch he has held for 42 years.

It comes as rebels step up calls for a no-fly zone to deter Gadhafi loyalists from airstrikes that have helped the regime retake key opposition-held areas. Those appeals got a boost over the weekend when the 22-nation Arab League asked the United Nations to authorize the step. France and Britain are drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution that would do that, but the U.S. and some others have expressed reservations about the utility of a no-fly zone, its cost and potential implications.

The debate has turned increasingly heated in the United States, with demands from some in Congress to support the rebels with air cover and weapons. President Obama and his top national security aides so far have demurred, fearing it would further strain America’s already stretched military and entangle the United States in an expensive and messy conflict that could be perceived as meddling. In his last public comment on the matter, on Friday, Mr. Obama said all the risks and consequences had to be weighed before intervening.

The sparring has transcended traditional political divisions in Washington with lawmakers from both parties on the each side. Even families have been split. Mrs. Clinton herself has been very cautious on the subject while her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has endorsed the move.

On Monday, one of Mrs. Clinton’s closest confidantes, Anne Marie Slaughter, who until last month was the State Department’s director of policy planning, wrote an opinion article in the New York Times titled “Fiddling While Libya Burns” that implored the administration to act. Now a professor at Princeton, Ms. Slaughter argued that the United States has an obligation to intervene to prevent wholesale slaughter and embrace the potential emergence of democracy in Libya.

Meanwhile, contingency planning continues. The Pentagon has ordered warships into the Mediterranean in case they are needed for Libya-related operations ranging from humanitarian assistance to possible military action. There are now at least five major U.S. warships in the Mediterranean, including the USS Kearsarge with a contingent of U.S. Marines on board.

Mrs. Clinton is in Paris for a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations. In addition to Mr. Sarkozy and the Libyans, Mrs. Clinton also will speak separately with the foreign minister of Japan, whose country is recovering from a devastating earthquake, and her counterpart from the United Arab Emirates.

From Paris, Mrs. Clinton travels to Cairo and Tunis, where she’ll urge transitional Egyptian and Tunisian leaders to heed the demands for change that fueled popular uprisings that ousted longtime autocratic rulers. On her last Mideast trip, in January as unrest gripped Tunisia, Mrs. Clinton delivered a stark warning to Arab governments that they risked “sinking into the sand” if they did not address the demands their peoples.

A day later, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile, emboldening protesters in other nations, notably Egypt, where mass demonstrations a month later forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down.

Mrs. Clinton is particularly keen to ensure that their successors follow through on meeting the aspirations of the demonstrators and, in particular, ensure respect for human rights. In both Cairo and Tunis, she will speak with activists to encourage them to continue to make their voices heard but also to be patient as the transitions pick up steam.

 

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