Published March 22, 2011
President Obama's pledge to scale back the U.S. military's role in Libya has opened up a leadership vacuum on the world stage, as international partners squabble over who should take the reins once the opening round of missile strikes is over.
The president and his top military officials have been decidedly vague in talking about who will take over for Americans forces currently leading the air assault, though Obama said a transition will occur "in a matter of days."
"When this transition takes place it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone. It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That's precisely what the other nations are going to do," Obama said.
Responding to a question at a news conference on the final stop of a Latin American trip, the President also suggested the administration would not need to request funding from Congress for the air operations but would pay for them out of money already approved.
Obama spoke as administration officials briefed lawmakers in Washington about the military operation to date, and as the White House disclosed he would return home a few hours ahead of schedule on Wednesday.
Some leaders think NATO is the obvious choice to lead, but Turkey has objected and France -- which has been out in front of the crisis -- is making a play for political leadership of the mission.
The confusion, compounded by mixed messages over whether Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi is a target for removal, raises questions about the direction of the alliance and the ability of the United States to step down from its leadership role in the near future.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a vocal advocate for the no-fly zone, told Fox News he hopes the French and British can take the lead.
"There's no doubt about that," McCain said. He said the focus, though, needs to be on "getting the mission accomplished" by stopping the "slaughter" and removing Qaddafi from power.
Obama said Monday it is still U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go. Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated that point Tuesday, saying Qaddafi has "lost all legitimacy with his people."
But the president stressed that the military strikes and no-fly zone are not meant, by themselves, to achieve that goal. He suggested non-military options and international pressure would ultimately lead to Qaddafi's ouster.
However, the international community is having a difficult time organizing as the mission moves into its next phase.
Discord erupted Monday in Europe after Turkey blocked NATO from participating. Diplomats said Turkey, a NATO member that sees itself as a bridge between Europe and the Muslim world, was angered by its exclusion from an emergency summit Saturday in Paris organized by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, at which the 22 participants agreed to launch armed action against Qaddafi's military.
Diplomats said Turkey's envoys had warned that NATO's participation in the airstrikes could damage the alliance's standing in the Islamic world at a time when it is heavily engaged in the war in Afghanistan.
NATO's participation in any military action against Libya would require the approval of all 28 NATO members. But Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal denied that his country was grounding NATO, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan later said he could support the NATO effort if it does not turn into an occupation.
On the other end, Italy warned Monday that it would review the use of its bases by coalition forces if NATO does not take over. The country lies just across the Mediterranean from Libya and is allowing the use of seven of its military bases.
France said Tuesday it has agreed with the United States that NATO should have a role in coalition's military operations in Libya.
A statement issued in Paris said that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Barack Obama "agreed on the modalities of using the structures of the NATO command to support the coalition."
British Prime Minister David Cameron also has said NATO should lead the imposition of the no-fly zone.
Turkey apparently was not the only obstacle, though. Diplomats said France was seeking political leadership of the mission, but this was opposed by a number of other nations, which wanted NATO firmly in charge. Another sticking point was just how aggressive the enforcement of the no-fly zone should be, as several nations strongly opposed continuing the air strikes on Libyan ground targets.
Germany also questioned the wisdom of the operation, and Russia's Vladimir Putin railed against the U.N.-backed airstrikes mounted so far.
Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a Fox News strategic analyst, said the confusion illustrates what happens when the United States de-emphasizes its military role as part of an alliance.
"If the president of the United States does not lead, there is, as we are witnessing, a worldwide leadership vacuum," Peters said Tuesday.
U.S. Gen. Carter Ham, who is currently in charge of U.S. attacks on Libya, said Monday that the allied nations have been planning for a transition "from the start," though he conceded key details have not been worked out.
"It's not so simple as just having a handshake someplace and saying, 'OK, you're now in charge.' There are some very complex technical things that have to occur, particularly in the management, command and control of the air campaign," Ham said. "But I would also say, we are ready to begin that process immediately as soon as that follow-on headquarters is identified."
Asked about the transition, Obama left the door open for who would succeed the U.S. military.
"NATO will be involved in a coordinating function because of the extraordinary capacity of that alliance. But I will leave it to (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike) Mullen and those who are directly involved in the operation to describe to you how exactly that transfer might ... take place," Obama said.
Obama, who is completing a diplomatic trip through Latin America, also spoke with Erdogan Monday evening about the Libyan intervention. According to the White House, both leaders "reaffirmed their support" for implementing the U.N. resolution authorizing the no-fly zone.
"The leaders agreed that this will require a broad-based international effort, including Arab states, to implement and enforce the U.N. resolutions, based on national contributions and enabled by NATO's unique multinational command and control capabilities to ensure maximum effectiveness," the White House said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.