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US sees Gaddafi going, going... nowhere

Mark Mardell | 18:55 UK time, Thursday, 10 March 2011

President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that Col Muammar Gaddafi should go, now his top adviser on intelligence has said the Libyan ruler will probably win his battle to stay in power.

While the Americans aren't going as far as the French and recognising the Libyan rebel leadership, they have broken off relations with the embassy in Washington and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Libyan opposition leaders next week.

The director of national intelligence General James Clapper has told politicians on Capitol Hill that over time, in the longer term Gaddafi will probably prevail because he has better trained and equipped troops. He added that another possible outcome was the break-up of Libya into what he called three semi-autonomous mini states.

The president's National Security Adviser Tom Donilon later rejected this. He suggested this was a "static and one-dimensional analysis", whereas Libya had to been seen through a multi-dimensional and fluid lens. He suggested the pressure of sanctions and the threat of the international community were more important. He said that history was on the side of Libyan people and the "fear dynamic is lost and the overwhelming force analysis changes". Gen Clapper seems to agree with Mao that "power grows from the barrel of a gun", Mr Donilon seems to have a Hegelian view of history, as the "unfolding of the mind of God".

Philosophy aside, politicians told Gen Clapper that his view of the outcome meant that the US should tip the balance. But the general didn't answer the sort of questions that amounted to statements, from politicians who felt his testimony meant imposing a no-fly zone was urgent.

In another committee, Mrs Clinton had answers of a sort. She said her main aim was to build an international consensus for any action. It was critical, she said, "especially for us". She was remarkably frank, saying there was ambivalence because people don't know the best way to get rid of Col Gaddafi and don't know what the opposition represents. She concluded that every option imaginable was being looked into "but if this were easy, we would have already done it".

President Obama wants America to have a new relationship with the world, and this is a critical test of his approach. To some, this looks like hesitation and weakness... It always has and always will irritate those who want an unapologetically aggressive America storming ahead, out front, leading those who have the guts to follow.

That is not Mr Obama's way. In part, he was elected in reaction to the Iraq war and he's very serious about acting in concert with the international community. His style is very deliberative, very rigorous, rather academic. In the White House there are lots of meetings that seem to some almost like study groups; history books are discussed, options examined from every angle. I am told they worry about the questions a distinguished conservative commentator, George Will, set out recently.

For a group who want to base decisions on facts there's a frustration that they are flying blind: there's been very little intelligence about a coming revolution and a shambolic opposition. I suspect Gen Clapper's purpose was to show off how much intelligence had been gathered on the military kit on the ground.

In the White House there's a curious mixture of an emotional attachment to the cause of democracy-loving rebels and a hard-headed pragmatism. Libya is not seen as a vital national interest, in the way that Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen are, and they don't want to get tied down in one country when more important challenges may be around the next corner.

The idea of a no-fly zone, dismissed with scorn by many insiders, has become a bit of a symbol, about how far the world is willing to go. Europeans (deliciously the French in particular) and others seem torn between demanding America doesn't barge around like a bully and wanting it to take action to topple a dreadful dictator when he attacks his own people. The Obama administration is using the crisis as a test case. The key is whether the Arab world, the Muslim world will "cowboy up" and back some action. Although Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton have been crystal clear that UN backing is need, an invitation from the Arab League, or a coalition of Arab nations, to take action might tip the balance, as would an attention-grabbing massacre on the ground: at the UN there talk is of a "Guernica moment".

If neither happens, Mr Obama may simply accept that an autocrat he has called on to go, is going nowhere.

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