Calling Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's slaughter of his own citizens "outrageous" and "unacceptable," President Barack Obama said Thursday that he was exploring the "full range of options" to respond to the crisis. "This violence must stop," he declared.
But then, undercutting this stern warning, Obama announced that he was sending Under Secretary of State Bill Burns to Europe to "intensify our consultations with allies and partners about the situation" and Secretary Hillary Clinton to Geneva on Monday, again, "to consult" with other foreign ministers at a Human Rights Council meeting. (That is the same Council, by the way, to which Libya was elected last year, though State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday that Washington also wants Libya ousted from the Geneva-based, 47-member group.)
Obama said he was consulting with allies to ensure that "we join with the international community to speak with one voice to the government and the people of Libya."
But while the diplomats blather and dither, Libyans are being killed. To put down the rebellion that has already liberated Benghazi and the eastern, most oil-rich part of the country, Qaddafi has taken the unprecedented step of paying African mercenaries to massacre his own people. There are reports that his planes have strafed civilian protesters and bombed residential compounds. This was too much even for the Arab League, which voted to suspend Libya's membership in the organization.
No one is certain how many people have died so far in the rebellion against Qaddafi in this oil-rich nation of 6.5 million that Qaddafi has ruled since a coup some 42 years ago. But New York-based Human Rights Watch puts the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count. Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called estimates of some 1,000 people killed "credible."
Rather than wait for Qaddafi to escalate and carry out threats to use poison gas and house-to-house searches to root out his enemies, Obama should act now, unilaterally, to stop the slaughter.
One of the options he should consider is to create a "no-fly zone" over the capital, Tripoli, and the eastern part of the country which Qaddafi-loyal troops still control. President George H. W. Bush imposed such a zone over the Kurdish part of Iraq in 1991 after the Gulf War to prevent another monster, Saddam Hussein, from punishing the Kurds for rising up against him.
Pentagon friends tell us that shutting down Libyan air space to prevent Qaddafi from using his air force to bomb his own people would be relatively simple to do in a few hours. Radar-homing missiles could target Libyan radar, and the country's 13 airstrips could be bombed to prevent them from being used to land aircraft. Americans could also target Libyan Air Force planes on the ground, along with their contract Ukrainian pilots. Only about half of the 400-plus plane Libyan Air Force is estimated to be operational, the expert said.
Such a unilateral, immediate step makes good military sense, but even better political sense for Obama, whose leadership ratings have dropped to new lows, according to the latest Rasmussen poll. Both Gallup and Rasmussen show Obama's overall job approval having dropped some 3-5 points from its high water mark this year. The reason is clear and unambiguous: Americans are deeply concerned about the impact of events in the Middle East on regional security. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in a recent Newsweek/Daily Beast poll said they feared that recent events would lead to more instability and fundamentalism in the region.
The American people want decisive action in the region generally, and in Libya specifically, to save lives and do whatever can be done to hasten the elimination of the murderous Qaddafi regime. More generally, they feel we could be doing more to confront extremist elements throughout the region.
Domestically, even Democrats feel that the president has been largely absent from the conflicts raging over collective bargaining in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana -- politically important states in 2012 and elements of his victorious coalition in 2008.
So the domestic stakes in far-away Libya couldn't be higher. His pollsters must be telling him that Jimmy Carter lost the presidency in 1980 due to the perception that he had failed to rally Americans at home, then bedeviled by stagflation domestically, or to confront enemies abroad, where Iran continued to hold American diplomats hostage.
If Qaddafi truly intends to fight to the last "man, the last woman, the last bullet," as his son has vowed, Obama should act now to save lives in Libya and say to the American people -- indeed to the world --that this administration will not wait for U.N. or even NATO meetings to stop the slaughter.