It wasn’t very long ago that the United States, through a deft combination of threats and entreaties, had Muammar el-Qaddafi pretty much where it wanted him. By the mid-2000s, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Libyan dictator was eagerly seeking to deal away his nuclear program and reveal everything he and his intelligence officials knew about the nuclear “black market” run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.
At the time, Qaddafi’s main concern was the survival of his regime, according to officials. A crucial issue was his demand that if Libya abandoned its WMD program, the U.S. in turn would drop any goal of regime change, which seemed a real possibility after Saddam Hussein’s ouster in Iraq. A deal was struck only after the Libyan leader was reassured that then-President Bush would settle for "policy change"--surrendering his weapons of mass destruction. “One might argue that was the single case where ‘shock and awe' may have had positive effect,” said Mark Lagon, a former senior State Department official.
All of which raises questions about the absence of shock, awe, and other kinds of pressure coming out of Washington right now, despite what appears to be wholesale slaughter in protest-besieged Libya. Throughout the week, the Obama administration has largely deferred to Britain and France, which on Friday morning drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for pressure on the Libyan regime, including a possible referral to the International Criminal Court for war crimes. In Brussels the same day, the European Union nations adopted another proposal from the U.K. and France calling for an asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo on the regime. On Thursday, Switzerland froze Qaddafi’s assets.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday declared that the administration is “initiating” steps, but in truth, Washington has been following the Europeans. On Friday night, the White House finally announced several measures, including a freezing of Libyan assets.
One reason for Washington’s hesitation: The White House is waiting until all Americans are safely out of Libya. Nevertheless, President Obama’s caution is striking coming only weeks after he all but insisted on Hosni Mubarak’s departure in Egypt.
It is particularly ironic that one of the main tools in the U.S. toolbox is the International Criminal Court in the Hague, considering the distaste for the ICC that has historically dominated in Washington. Fearing an infringement on U.S. sovereignty, the Clinton administration opposed the ICC; the Bush administration “unsigned” the United States from the treaty; pressured countries to sign bilateral “immunity” deals; and, at one point, threatened to withdraw money for peacekeeping efforts if the U.N. Security Council did not exempt U.S. troops from ICC prosecution.
But Washington began to gingerly back referrals to the ICC beginning with a decision in 2005 not to veto the Security Council's referral of Darfur. On Thursday, at a White House meeting with Mideast and human-rights experts, administration officials responded to questions on the use of U.S. pressure against Libya by proposing an ICC referral, one participant said.
There is some debate over what kind of leverage Washington really has, because Qaddafi's regime was taken off the list of terror-supporting states in September 2004. According to a U.S. intelligence official, the protests in Libya have led to a “fracturing at the top” unlike what has occurred in any other Arab nation during the upheavals of recent weeks. Qaddafi has “lost a pretty good portion of the country, particularly in the east … so it’s not looking good for him. The regime still has control of Tripoli and other parts of the country.”
But through decades of sanctions, the only thing that Qaddafi ever seemed to show any fear about was a personal attack, whether a direct military assault or the threat that he could be hauled off to the Hague. And that's what is likely to be most effective now.