The profound debate dividing the US government on how to proceed on the Libyan crisis burst out into the open this week in several conflicting statements: President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, were all seen to be pulling in different directions – especially over military intervention to resolve the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources disclose that President Obama is in favor of such intervention, whether by US or Egyptian troops (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 483 reported on Feb. 25, 2011). He wants no-fly zones enforced over Libya and US special forces deployed at Qaddafi's military airports and bases to disable his air force and loyal army units.
At the same time, Obama is bent on pursuing diplomatic engagement with Iran on its nuclear program and aiming for a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic.
His Libyan and Iranian policies are interwoven in the sense that the US president and his close advisers see the revolutions engulfing the Arab world, which are still at their outset, as weakening the conservative Arab (anti-Iran) regimes hitherto regarded as pro-American in the interim stage, while strengthening Iran and its alliance of Turkey and Syria, backed by Latin American governments.
Obama believes that this process will steer Iran into cooperation with the United States and so promote American diplomatic goals in the Middle East – a gambit reminiscent of Carter-Brzezinski instrumentality in overthrowing the Shah of Iran in 1979.
Iran off the hook, on the hook
This rationale was behind the comment made by Adm. Mullen in the course of his round trip of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Persian Gulf emirates in the third week of February. On instructions from the White House, he was quoted as saying: "There are always concerns in this region with Iran. Certainly the United States has them, as well as all the regional players. Iran, I still believe, is a country that continues to foment instability in the region, take advantage of every opportunity. But from my perspective that has not been the principal focus of what happened in Egypt or what happened in Bahrain or any of these countries."
Secretary Clinton takes strong issue with this approach. She is against drastic gyrations in the US attitude toward the Iran-Turkey-Syria bloc that would spell the abandonment of traditional US Sunni allies in favor of the Shiite bloc headed by Iran, even though Sunni Turkey is an important component of the Iran-led alignment. Clinton fears a policy reversal would imperil Israel, America's senior ally in the Middle East, and seriously impact that country's strategic standing and security.
Clinton used her appearance at the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, March 2, to give the (unmentioned) Obama policy a piece of her mind and counter the White House view articulated by Adm. Mullen: She accused Iran of direct and indirect contacts with opposition groups in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen to shape events there. It was the first time in the three-month wave of Arab unrest which toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, convulsed Libya and rocked Yemen, Bahrain and Oman, that the US secretary had alleged Iranian meddling in their affairs.
Clinton warns that Obama is giving Tehran a free hand
"They are doing everything they can to influence the outcomes in these places," Clinton told the Senate Committee. "They are using Hizballah… to communicate with counterparts… in (the Palestinian movement) Hamas who then in turn communicate with counterparts in Egypt," she said. "We know that they are reaching out to the opposition in Bahrain. We know that the Iranians are very much involved in the opposition movements in Yemen," she said.
Clinton's remarks were configured both to forewarn President Obama that his policy could have dire results and to let Tehran know that some administration officials were keeping an eye on its actions and were keenly aware of what the Iranians were up to. They need not think they had a free hand to exploit the unrest in the Middle East in any way they pleased.
Defense Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen have not subscribed to Clinton's diplomatic arguments against Obama's approach on Iran, but they will object strongly if it results in US military intervention in Libya or any other Arab uprisings.
Friday, Feb. 25, in a farewell speech as defense secretary at West Point, Gates said: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it."
Then, Tuesday and Wednesday, March 1-2, Gates sharpened his arguments against American military intervention in Libya.
Gates: Too much loose talks about military options
"Let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya," Gates told the House subcommittee on Defense Appropriations. "That's the way you do a no fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. Well, if it's ordered, we can do it," Gates said. "But the reality is, there's a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options."
Gates' opposition to any US military involvement in Libya is so strong that when Washington announced that it was sending naval forces to be stationed off the Libyan coast, Gates cut them down to the USS Kearsarge and USS Ponc amphibious assault vessels with the number of marines on board kept down to 800.
This left an American show of strength without enough teeth and claws to affect the course of events in Libya.
In the latter part of this week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report, awareness of the discord in Washington over how to handle him gave Muammar Qaddafi a huge boost and accounted for his relaxed and confident manner in a televised address on Wednesday, March 2 – a n evident recovery from his bedraggled, woebegone appearance under an umbrella in the first week of the protest against his rule.
Qaddafi seized the chance of salvaging his regime and strengthening his hand when he received an intelligence briefing on the confused situation in Washington from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez was briefed by two sources – Iranian president Ahmed Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (who publicly calls for Qaddafi's ouster).
In contrast, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that Obama, Gates and Clinton are groping in the dark in Libya for lack of intelligence assets on ground. They are at sea on unfolding events on both sides of the Libyan divide, their only sources being Libyan expats in Europe and oil sources.
To parry rising doubts about the value of administration decision-making in the dark, President Obama Wednesday, March 2, set up a team of CIA, National Security Council and Pentagon intelligence experts to start organizing a working undercover network inside Libya. This will take some time to build.