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7 Ugly Options for the United States in Libya

Author: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
March 9, 2011


Editor's Note: Dr. James Lindsay is a Senior Vice President of the Council on Foreign Relations (where he blogs), co-author of the book America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy and former director for global issues and multilateral affairs at the National Security Council.

Hopes that revolutionary fervor would quickly sweep Moammar Gadhafi from power look to be dashed. The Libyan strongman has secured his hold over Tripoli, the country's capital and largest city, and his forces have begun attacking rebel strongholds. A protracted Libyan civil war may be looming.

That prospect presents President Obama with a dilemma: How does he encourage Gadhafi's ouster and minimize harm to Libyan civilians without entangling the United States in yet another Middle East conflict?  He has seven options.

The administration has already taken several steps to pressure Gadhafi to go. It has frozen $30 billion worth of Libyan assets in the United States, joined with the rest of the international community in banning members of the regime from traveling internationally and voted to suspend Libya's membership in the UN Human Rights Council.

None of these measures is likely to make a difference, at least any time soon. The travel ban and Human Rights Council suspension are purely symbolic. Sanctions could take months to pinch the regime, if at all.

So what are the White House's next steps? Direct U.S. military intervention is off the table. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and senior U.S. military officials oppose sending U.S. troops into Libya. The American public feels likewise.

Here is a figure to keep in mind: a majority of Americans – 58 percent according to the latest CNN poll – oppose the war in Afghanistan. Americans don't want to get out of Afghanistan just so we can go into Libya.

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