The Envoy

Obama to press “unique” Libya case, quick U.S. handover

The Envoy

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In the first major address to the American people since ordering U.S. air strikes in Libya nine days ago, President Barack Obama will likely make two basic points. First, he will reiterate the central argument that some U.S. and European officials made in the run-up to the Libya action: that the United States and its coalition partners needed to act urgently to avert the threat of mass slaughter on the ground in Libya, on a scale akin to the 1990s genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. At the same time, however, Obama is likely to reflect the broader ambivalence of U.S. public opinion about yet another military intervention in the Muslim world by stressing that the United States has already turned over the principal operational authority for the Libya military mission to the NATO-led international alliance which has agreed to stem Muammar Gadhafi's attacks on his own citizens.

"We had very unsettling and inciting language from the [Gadhafi] government, to include that he would use no mercy, or that he would go door to door and find people in their closets," Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough told journalists at the White House Monday to explain why the White House believed military intervention in Libya is a "unique" and justified case.

But NATO is now taking control of the entire military mission, a senior U.S. official told journalists in a hastily arranged Sunday afternoon conference call.

"From this moment on forward, NATO will be in command not only of the no-fly zone, not only of enforcing the arms embargo, but now also of the civilian protection mission," the senior U.S. official told journalists Sunday.

He went on to note that all 28 members of NATO agreeing to the trans-Atlantic alliance taking on full command of Libya military operation fulfilled President Obama's repeated earlier insistence that the U.S. would turn over the lead role in the mission in "days, not weeks."

"The President said … we were going to take the lead in the initial period, providing our unique capabilities to shape the battlefield, but then within days, we would hand over control of that operation to others," the official said. "And that's what we accomplished today in NATO."

While NATO has formally agreed to take over all military components of enforcing UN Security Council resolution 1973 authorizing the use of "all necessary means" to protect Libyan civilians from attack, western diplomats and military officials concede that not all of the details have been worked out.

"The bottom line is that in both cases — on the US side and within NATO — we are seeking to protect innocent lives and allow Libyans the freedom to decide the future of their country," NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. James Stavridis wrote at his blog Monday. "Important work, indeed."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is joining international coalition partners at an international conference on Libya being convened in London Tuesday.  That conference is likely to end with the establishment of a "contact group" — a political grouping that will provide broad political guidance for the longer term humanitarian and political mission in Libya. That contact group, however, will not be charged with providing any executive military direction which will all be performed by NATO.

Also due to attend the London conference: members of the Arab League participating in the Libya military enforcement mission including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, members of the African Union, as well as at least one major leader of the Libyan opposition, Mahmoud Jibril, who met Clinton earlier this month in Paris.

More international conferences working out further next steps are likely to follow.

More broadly, Obama White House officials insist that the scale of the humanitarian crisis presented by Libya is unique — and the U.S. intervention there does not signal a nascent "Obama doctrine" that would imply future U.S. military interventions in other simmering Middle East unrest and violent crackdowns from Bahrain to Syria to Yemen.

"Does that mean that every time we have to lead an international coalition to intervene militarily? Absolutely not," the White House's McDonough said Monday.

(Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Md., Monday, March 28, 2011, prior to boarding her plane, as she heads to London to attend the conference on Libya: AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool.)

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