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Hostage fear a key factor in Obama's muted Libya response

By Ed Henry, CNN Senior White House Correspondent
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Obama: Libya's violence must stop
  • President Obama has been criticized for being mum on the crisis in Libya
  • U.S. officials say there was a fear speaking out could endanger Americans in Libya

Washington (CNN) -- While President Obama has taken heat for a relatively muted response in the early days of the crisis in Libya, U.S. officials privately believe it was the best strategy because if Obama had bashed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, it could have put the thousands of Americans in Libya in harm's way.

U.S. officials said there was a fear inside the administration that some of those Americans could have been taken hostage by Gadhafi, who once again made his distaste for America clear in rambling public remarks earlier this week and would relish the chance to escalate the crisis and drag U.S. citizens into the crossfire.

It's no accident that aides say Obama planned his first on-camera comments, just as a chartered ferry was expected to evacuate more than 500 Americans from Tripoli to nearby Malta.

Asked by CNN if Obama was being more cautious in his public comments because of the Americans in harm's way, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney acknowledged it was an "important factor" in the calculations.

"The president is obviously concerned about the safety of American citizens -- no question," Carney said at his daily briefing with reporters. "And that is an important factor in any country. And the circumstances of American citizens are different in each country. The protections they have, say, at the embassy, might be different in one country than the protections they have in another. All of those factors are important in how we approach these situations, and how the president looks at them."

Carney added the president is also "extremely concerned and alarmed by the horrific violence and bloodshed that's happened in Libya" in recent days.

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Obama has been blistered by some critics for being too soft on Gadhafi, with columnist Jackson Diehl writing in the Washington Post that Libya "ought to be the easy case in the Middle East's turmoil" for the White House to deal with because of the Gadhafi government's killing of at least hundreds of its own people.

"Yet the administration so far has declined to directly condemn Gadhafi, call for his ouster, or threaten sanctions," Diehl wrote. "Instead, it has repeated the same bland language about restraint and 'universal rights' that it has used to respond to the uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, and other countries with pro-U.S. regimes."

When pressed by reporters on Wednesday, Carney did leave the door open for the White House to push sanctions and other punishment, including a no-fly zone, against Libya.

"A lot of options are under review -- sanctions, other options," said Carney.

Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said in a telephone interview that he puts some stock in the White House's private concern that escalating the public pressure on Gadhafi could backfire and lead to Americans being harmed.

"He is unpredictable," said Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator for several U.S. administrations. "If you personalize this, you could wind up riling up Gadhafi even more."

Miller added that public statements from Obama could also put more Libyans in harm's way, if it leads to an expansion of the protests that then sparks an ever larger government crackdown. "You then assume responsibility for hundreds of thousands of people you can't possibly protect," he said.

While Miller stressed that he is not criticizing Obama because he understands the crisis in Libya is a complicated situation, he remarked that the difference between the White House's response to Gadhafi and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is pretty stark.

"It's stunning that in the case of Mubarak -- an ally -- we forcefully and publicly called for a transition 'now' and interceded," said Miller. "And with Libya -- an adversary -- we've been so cautious and careful."

Miller said he thinks a huge factor in the White House's calculation is that if the United States calls for Gadhafi's ouster, for consistency's sake American officials would also have to put pressure on U.S. allies in places like Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to allow democracy to flourish as well.

"Are we worried about Americans on the ground (in Libya), or is it the fear of talking tough and not being able to deliver?" asked Miller, who said the United States is "still living with the devil's bargain" that various administrations in both parties have made with partners in the Mideast.

"We tell them, 'Protect us in our war and peacemaking policies, and we'll cut you a break on governance and human rights,'" said Miller. "We're still in the middle of this. That's why we're in a box."

Miller also believes Obama spoke out a little too much on Egypt and is now facing the question of whether he's not speaking enough in this case.

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