As Libya's government brutally cracked down on demonstrators Monday, the Obama administration confronted a cold truth: It had almost none of the leverage it has exercised in recent days to help defuse other crises in the region.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the violence in Libya on Monday, and said the United States is “working urgently with friends” around the world to pressure the government of Moammar Gadhafi. “Now is the time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed,” she said.
But current and former officials said that American appeals are likely to have little effect on Gadhafi, a mercurial autocrat who for decades was regarded as a nemesis of U.S. presidents.
Although the United States has been able to leverage its deep ties with Egypt's armed forces, it has no significant military-to-military relationship with Libya. It also has little economic leverage: For the past fiscal year, U.S. aid to Libya has been less than $1 million, and most of that has gone toward helping the country's disarmament program.
There is not even a U.S. ambassador at the moment. Gene Cretz, the ambassador to Tripoli, was called back to Washington recently for extended “consultations” after WikiLeaks released cables in which he described Gadhafi's eccentricities.
“We don't have personal relations at a high level. As far as I know, President Obama has never even talked to Colonel Gadhafi,” said David Mack, a former senior U.S. diplomat who dealt with Libya.
Libya was a pariah state for much of the past three decades. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration convinced the nation to give up its nuclear- and chemical-weapons programs. Libya also renounced terrorism, leading the U.S. government to remove it from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism.”
But only in 2008 did the United States and Libya establish full diplomatic relations.
Obama, who is being kept abreast of events in Libya primarily by national security adviser Thomas Donilon, is “considering all appropriate actions” as the unrest continues, said a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation.
Meantime, in a conversation with Gadhafi on Monday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “expressed deep concern at the escalating scale of violence and emphasized that it must stop immediately,” according to a U.N. statement.
Still, experts say that Libya essentially floats on a cushion of oil wealth, and that any U.S. or U.N. effort to promote sanctions against it would attract little international support.
Libya's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, who broke with Gadhafi on Monday, urged the international community to impose a no-fly zone over the country to prevent mercenaries and arms from reaching the government. But no other major power echoed the call.
Human rights groups have urged the United States and other countries to more forcefully condemn the Libyan government's attacks, which have involved military helicopters and jets as well as soldiers opening fire on peaceful crowds, according to witnesses.
But Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, acknowledged that U.S. pressure has its limits.
“Frankly, I don't think the U.S. government has any real channels into the Libyan government,” she said.
The muted U.S. response reflected, in part, the administration's difficulty in keeping pace with fast-moving events in Libya, where many reports of widening unrest were difficult to verify. The government has not allowed foreign journalists into the country, and has cut off Internet service.
Even in the best of times, tight government regulations limit U.S. diplomats' movement around Libya. On Monday, the State Department said that it had ordered all U.S. diplomats' family members and non-emergency personnel to leave Libya.
“Our embassy is focused on, at this point, security and the evacuation of Americans. There's a lot of information out there. We're not really in a position to corroborate it,” said one State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
White House officials said that, in addition to privately urging Libyan officials to show restraint in dealing with the demonstrations, they are studying the Monday pre-dawn speech of Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the leader's son. One official said the review is to “see what possibilities it contains for meaningful reform.”
Seif Gadhafi has offered reformist proposals in the past. In the summer of 2008, he delivered a national address that U.S. diplomats said “implicitly criticized past decisions of his father's regime” and called for “dramatic changes” to Libya's political system, according a cable recently made available by WikiLeaks.
Few, if any, reforms followed, and the tone of his middle-of-the night address amid the growing unrest over the weekend served as more of a warning than a pledge of reform.
“For him to be speaking in such a bellicose way about what's happening in the country, repeating tired old promises about reform, it's just appalling,” Whitson said.