(CNSNews.com) – Defending his response to Middle East crises during his first term, President Barack Obama said in an interview aired Sunday that the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi would likely disagree with the view that the U.S. administration had abdicated leadership.
Yet at the time – almost two years ago – the president did allow European allies to take the lead, both in calling for Gaddafi to leave, and then in pushing for a “no-fly” zone to help protect Libyans facing the wrath of the regime.
Obama’s comments, during a joint CBS “60 Minutes” interview with outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were the latest from the administration characterizing its actions in response to Mideast upheavals as robust, when at the time they drew fire from critics who saw them as anything but.
“The biggest criticism of this team in the U.S. foreign policy from your political opposition has been what they say is an abdication of the United States on the world stage, sort of a reluctance to become involved in another entanglement,” said interviewer Steve Kroft, citing Syria as an example.
“Well, Muammar Gaddafi probably does not agree with that assessment, or at least if he was around, he wouldn’t agree with that assessment,” Obama replied. “Obviously, you know, we helped to put together and lay the groundwork for liberating Libya.”
Looking back at the mid-February to mid-March 2011 period, however, the administration’s hesitancy was apparent.
The Libya uprising began on February 15 with anti-regime protests in Benghazi. On February 23, Obama delivered a statement to the press about the crisis, condemning the violence but not mentioning Gaddafi by name.
On February 25, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy called publicly for the dictator of 42 years to step down. White House press secretary Jay Carney that same day was asked whether Obama also thought Gaddafi should go, and he replied, “That is a matter for the people of Libya to decide.”
A day later, the White House said that Obama, during a phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had said Gaddafi should “do what is right for his country by leaving now.”
Some analysts attributed the administration’s reluctance to take the lead to Obama’s determination not to be likened to his predecessor by initiating military action in the Islamic world.
Clinton herself appeared to acknowledge as much in a March 16, 2011 interview with the BBC in Cairo.
“It is important that no one sees the United States acting unilaterally,” she said. “This is what we were criticized for in the not-so-distant past.”
At the time of that Clinton interview, France and Britain had been pushing for a no-fly zone over Libya for almost a month, and U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) had been doing so since February 25. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on March 6 added his voice to the call to act. Even the Arab League called on March 12 for such a step to be taken – a rare appeal for outside intervention in the Arab world – following a similar appeal by the Islamic bloc or nations.
On March 17, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution, drafted earlier by France, Britain and Lebanon, authorizing countries to take “all necessary measures” short of foreign occupation to protect civilians under threat of attack by the Libyan regime.
The U.S. had not immediately come out in support of the draft measure, but did add its sponsorship on the day of the vote.
The Security Council resolution paved the way for NATO intervention in Libya. Gaddafi was killed by rebel militiamen on October 20.
In the “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on Sunday, both Obama and Clinton defended the need to step carefully when responding to the conflict in Syria.
“Syria’s a classic example of where our involvement – we want to make sure that not only does it enhance U.S. security, but also that it is doing right by the people of Syria and neighbors like Israel that are going to be profoundly affected by it,” Obama said. “And so it’s true sometimes that we don’t just shoot from the hip.”
Clinton said the world was dangerous and “incredibly complicated,” also citing Syria.
“We are on the side of American values. We’re on the side of freedom. We’re on the side of the aspirations of all people, to have a better life, have the opportunities that we are fortunate to have here,” she said. “But it’s not always easy to perceive exactly what must be done in order to get to that outcome.
“So you know, I certainly am grateful for the president’s steady hand and hard questions and thoughtful analysis as to what we should and shouldn’t do.”
Protests against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in mid-March 2011. Seven weeks later, the administration imposed its first sanctions on Damascus, targeting not Assad himself, but three senior regime officials as well as two security agencies.
During those first seven weeks more than 450 people had been killed, according to human rights groups.
Twenty-two weeks after the violent clampdown began, Obama on August 18 called for Assad to “step aside.” By then the conflict had cost an estimated 1,800-2,000 lives.
The uprising morphed into a full-blown civil war, and the United Nations early this month said the death toll has now reached 60,000.