Is Obama Trying to Scare Qaddafi Out of Libya?

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With news of CIA involvement, consideration for arming the rebels, and the sudden departure of top regime officials, the U.S. may be clearing the way for the colonel's exit

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Perhaps two of the organizations least known for leaking, the CIA and the Obama White House, the latter of which has made a special habit of prosecuting leakers, appear to have both leaked the same story at the same time to the New York Times and to Reuters, the latter of which cites four separate sources. Together, they report that President Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the clandestine operations in support of Libya's rebels, including Central Intelligence Agency agents on the ground but not including arms for the rebels. It's possible that these officials all decided to risk joining past leakers in prison, like Bradley Manning. It's possible they all made the decision simultaneously, apparently on the same day, though the finding is now two to three weeks old. And it's possible they all chose to reveal about the same level of detail. Such a leak would be nearly unprecedented in scale and coordination -- nearly all such leaks are made by lone individuals -- and, judging by the Obama Department of Justice's past response to leaks, would bring about a large and almost assuredly successful investigation.

All of these things are possible. But it's also possible that the leak was planned, as so many U.S. government leaks are. There are several reasons that administrations willingly leak secrets: a desire to release information without publicly owning it or associating it with the president, legal restrictions that make it impossible for the White House to publicly acknowledge a program, or simply wanting to give the appearance that something should be a secret without actually keeping it that way. All of these factors could be in play in a possible decision to let slip Obama's secret finding. Such a leak makes appear Obama more bullish on Libya without requiring him to explain the plan for this new secret authority. It wards off domestic pressure without actually engaging those pressuring him. It also prepares the American people for the possibility of clandestine actions without actually carrying them out or even promising to consider carrying them out. After all, though the finding's approval may be broad, very little appears to have actually been done with it. Arming the rebels, the first logical step in a serious clandestine commitment, doesn't have the necessary congressional approval.

Perhaps most significant of all, leaking news of the finding would send a clear and no doubt chilling message to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the remainders of his regime: if you allow this war to continue, you could go up against the CIA. This may not be the administration's only such signal to Qaddafi. Over the past week, Obama administration officials have appeared surprisingly willing to answer questions about whether the U.S. is arming the Libyan rebels, though the officials always give some variation of the same answer: not yet, but we haven't ruled it out, and we've got legal authority to do it, so we might. U.S. administrations, from Reagan's arming of the Contras through today, have been incredibly tight-lipped about CIA-led missions to arm rebel groups. That the Obama team has appeared not only willing but eager to discuss a program on which it has not yet even decided is incredibly unusual.

It's possible that all this talk of arming the rebels could be, like Wednesday's oddly synchronized leaks about the secret finding, a sort of warning for Qaddafi. After all, if our primary goal was really arming the rebels, we would probably just do it, and in total secret. As a former U.S. official who worked on Libyan issues told Yahoo News's Laura Rozen, "I think that if we do arm the rebels, we will never hear about it. ... The Libyan rebels have said they want training by the Egyptian military. They say they don't want Americans on the ground. The Egyptian military will give them stuff, some of which they've bought from us, it will be called technical assistance, that is how it's going to happen."

So why would Obama work so hard to signal his intent to escalate the conflict without actually doing so? With the rebel advance stalled, and the war appearing to head for either Qaddafi's victory or a costly stalemate that could consume Libya for years, Obama faces a dauntingly hard choice: escalate U.S. involvement and risk entangling the country in another Afghanistan or, by refusing to escalate, put make the U.S. culpable for the rebels' failure and Qaddafi's sure-to-be bloody victory. The best possible way forward, then, could be to coerce Qaddafi into stepping down voluntarily, as both Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali did. These hints of greater U.S. involvement could be Obama's way of showing Qaddafi the door. Also on Wednesday, a senior official with the government of Uganda, a close U.S. ally, suddenly announced to Al Arabiya, a pan-Arabic TV network, that his country would consider an asylum request from the Libyan leader.

Already, a number of regime figures are fleeing Libya. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, one of Qaddafi's closest allies outside the leader's family, became by far the most significant regime defector. Kusa's departure will not in itself inflict much of a wound on the government; in recent years, Kusa has mostly served as a point of contact for Western diplomats and journalists, something that Qaddafi will never again have much use for. But the foreign minister's sudden flight suggests that Qaddafi's rule, even over his own inner circle, could be cracking.

But if Qaddafi is to consent to leave, there is one issue that could matter just as much to him as the power he would give up after his decades in office: the fate of his seven sons and sole daughter. More than just his children, they're crucial -- and incredibly ruthless -- leaders of his regime. But they're also spoiled rotten, having spent their whole lives floating through Europe's most expensive nightclubs and hotels, living off of their country's vast oil wealth. Uganda will not do for this bunch, but few Western nations are likely to accept the likes of Saif al-Islami Qaddafi, who pledged that his father would plunge Libya into bloody civil war if that's what it took to deny the rebels victory.

The stakes are rarely higher, the details rarely more bizarre, and the toll rarely more deadly than when it comes to dealing with Qaddafi. Whether or not Obama is really trying to scare the brutal despot out of office, and whether or not Qaddafi would be ready to go or even has a possible destination, there are few ways to end this conflict that would be faster and less harmful to the Libyan people and the future of their country.

Photo by Jim Young / Reuters

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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