Snap analysis: Obama leaves open some Libya questions

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama argued on Monday that the United States had accomplished many of its goals in Libya. But a nagging question remained: How long will U.S. forces be involved there?

Obama has found himself facing criticism throughout the Libyan crisis. First, he was accused of dithering for not acting sooner, and when he did act, U.S. lawmakers felt the air assaults had begun without a proper explanation of the mission’s goals or how its success could be judged.

In a speech trying to lay to rest those questions, Obama gave a thorough defense of why he launched the mission.

He said it was a justifiable humanitarian mission, limited in scope, to prevent a massacre by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi against his people who oppose his 41-year rule.

As it stands now, Obama could get a political boost from the Libyan operation. No American lives have been lost. The United States is no longer in the lead, meaning the mission’s costs may be limited in these days of tight budgets.

But after the speech, a variety of questions lingered:

* Exit strategy. Obama made the case that the United States, by transferring control of the operation to NATO, had already all but exited. He said U.S. forces would now take a back seat, providing intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue and a jamming of Gaddafi’s communications.

“So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: the United States of America has done what we said we would do,” he said.

But he did not offer a view on when the mission would be over, a question that may well be unknowable as long as Gaddafi remains in power and able to put pressure on Libyan rebels.

* Gaddafi’s future. Obama, wary of involving U.S. forces in a third war to join Iraq and Afghanistan, said it is U.S. policy that Gaddafi should leave power.

But he said it would be a mistake to launch into a “regime change” military operation against Gaddafi because “we went down that road in Iraq,” a clear shot at his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.

“We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power. It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gaddafi tries desperately to hang on to power,” Obama said. So long as Gaddafi remains in power, Obama will be vulnerable to criticism that the mission goals were muddled.

* Libyan rebels. Obama did not answer questions over how far the U.S. would go to assist the rebels. Critics are asking if arms might be made available to help them in the fight against Gaddafi.

* Syria and Yemen. Obama did not offer a broader review of U.S. policy on the turmoil in the Middle East, where revolts are threatening the rule of longtime leaders in Syria and Yemen.

But he may have ventured a tentative “Obama Doctrine” to explain how the United States will respond to the convulsions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.

The United States would support aspirations for freedom but only take military action in concert with others, to uphold specific national interests and where there was a strong need to act for humanitarian reasons.

“We welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way, because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States,” he said.

(Editing by Sean Maguire)

Snap analysis: Obama leaves open some Libya questions