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Does Obama really want Gadhafi to go?

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • David Frum says Obama administration has moved slowly on Libya
  • He says president said Moammar Gadhafi must go but what explains inaction?
  • He says Obama may have decided the U.S. is better off with Gadhafi in place

Washington (CNN) -- Has the Obama administration decided it wants the Gadhafi regime to survive?

That hypothesis is the only way to make sense of the administration's actions toward Libya.

On March 3, President Obama announced that Col. Moammar Gadhafi "must go."

Gadhafi did not listen. Instead, the Libyan dictator has brutally quelled the uprising with rockets, air strikes and attacks on civilian population centers.

And the U.S. reaction? The more brutally Gadhafi acts, the more slowly the U.S. responds. France and the United Kingdom are pressing for a no-fly zone inside Libya. Some military experts in U.S. have suggested arming the insurgents. The administration has said it is considering all these options, but that any final decision must await a NATO meeting on Tuesday.

By then, the Gadhafi regime may well have prevailed. From a Los Angles Times report on Sunday morning:

"Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi pushed deeper into rebellious eastern Libya on Sunday, overrunning an important oil town and forcing lightly armed rebel fighters back toward the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.

"The rebels fled Port Brega, site of a strategic refinery complex and oil terminal, under heavy bombardment and tried to hold back rapidly advancing government forces in Ajdabiya, about 95 miles southwest of Benghazi.

"Panicked rebels in Ajdabiya blocked reporters from driving farther west. Many said they lacked the firepower or manpower to slow the assault by Kadafi's fighters, who appeared poised to bombard the town."

Let's try two hypotheses to explain the administration's behavior:

1) The Obama administration genuinely wants to see Gadhafi toppled. Unfortunately, the list of policy options is not very appealing, and it takes a long time to choose amongst them.

Besides, the administration has a supreme commitment to working with allies and through the United Nations process. Those processes are inescapably slow. Yet the administration assures us that they are advancing: NATO meets on Libya on Tuesday for example. Which explains how President Obama can say that "the noose is tightening around Gadhafi" even as Gadhafi's troops capture town after town.

The consequence of these unfortunate but inevitable delays is that -- dearly as the administration would wish to help -- it just has not yet had sufficient time to finish its work.

2) The administration does not, in fact, want to see Gadhafi toppled. President Obama's March 3 statement was a misstep. Since then, the administration has reconsidered.

Administration thinking may go along the following lines:

"Yes Gadhafi is a very bad guy. But he quit the terrorism business a decade ago and paid compensation to the families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing. He surrendered his nuclear program in 2003. He cooperates with the EU in stopping illegal migration into Italy.

"He is a reliable oil supplier and a good customer for U.S. companies and our allies. Gadhafi is reopening Libya to Western energy firms like BP. He buys grain from Western suppliers. One Canadian firm, SNC-Lavalin, has a $275 million contract to build Gadhafi a new prison. A regime overthrow would wreck that contract and many others besides.

"It's very sad to see Gadhafi crush an uprising so brutally. But we know very little about the insurgents. They may be even worse than Gadhafi. One data point is especially disturbing:

"As one report put it, 'On a per capita basis, though, twice as many foreign fighters came to Iraq from Libya -- and specifically eastern Libya -- than from any other country in the Arabic-speaking world. Libyans were apparently more fired up to travel to Iraq to kill Americans than anyone else in the Middle East. And 84.1% of the 88 Libyan fighters in the Sinjar documents who listed their hometowns came from either Benghazi or Darnah in Libya's east.'

"Do we want to take the chance of replacing Gadhafi with a Mediterranean Somalia? Tribal leaders, fighting each other, inspired by Islamic ideology -- all just 300 miles from the coast of Sicily? We could have 300,000 refugees showing up on the NATO side of the Mediterranean. Better stick with the devil we know. The bloodletting cannot last much longer, stability will return soon."

An active Obama preference for Gadhafi's survival makes sense of the administration's otherwise baffling inaction.

Then, when the shooting is over, the administration can express regret for the loss of life -- and urge Gadhafi to reform his bloody ways. And when criticized, the excuse will be ready: We wanted to act, really and truly -- we just ran out of time.

Maybe somebody will even believe it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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