The Cable

White House: Obama method for regime change better than Bush method

This week's toppling of the Qaddafi regime in Libya shows that the Obama administration's multilateral and light-footprint approach to regime change is more effective than the troop-heavy occupation-style approach used by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, a top White House official told Foreign Policy today in a wide-ranging interview.

"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with FP. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."

Despite criticism from Congress and elsewhere, President Barack Obama's strategy for the military intervention in Libya will not only result in a better outcome in Libya but also will form the basis of Obama's preferred model for any future military interventions, Rhodes said.

"There are two principles that the president stressed at the outset [of the Libya intervention] that have borne out in our approach. The first is that we believe that it's far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers," said Rhodes. "Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. wasn't bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions."

Rhodes said that the United States is not going to be able to replicate the exact same approach to intervention in other countries, but identified the two core principles of relying on indigenous forces and burden sharing as "characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention."

Rhodes also weighed in on several other aspects of the Libya saga:

  • Rhodes confirmed the comments by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on Tuesday that the TNC can choose whether to prosecute Muammar al-Qaddafi themselves or hand him over to the International Criminal Court, which has indicted him on war crimes. ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, however, has argued that the decision is not up to the Libyans.
  • "We believe it's something that the Libyans and the [Transitional National Coalition], were they to capture Qaddafi, would then be in charge of, in consultation with the ICC," said Rhodes. "Were he to go to any third country, they would have an obligation to turn him over to the ICC."
  • On the role of the NATO operation in Libya, Rhodes said the civilian protection mission continues but that consultation will soon begin in Brussels on the conclusion of the mission. The need for the NATO protection mission is still present for now, Rhodes said, but the White House doesn't anticipate the TNC requesting a peacekeeping force from NATO or the United Nations that involves any foreign boots on the ground. "There's no plan for that type of effort," he said.
  • Rhodes said the drive to release between $1 billion and $1.5 billion of Qaddafi's frozen assets to the TNC is moving along quickly. "We think that should be complete in the next few days and we don't foresee an insurmountable problem there," he said. The Obama administration feels confident the TNC can manage the money and prevent it from being stolen or funneled to unsavory actors. The administration will also try to ensure the money goes to the urgent needs identified by the TNC.
  • Rhodes also addressed the effects the developments in Libya may have on Syria, saying that "it sends a message to Damascus that a crackdown of the sort that Qaddafi and [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad have pursued is not a means of maintaining legitimacy and staying in power in the long run."
  • Rhodes said that a transition to democracy in Syria is in the U.S. national interest, and would weaken Iran's ability to influence regional events. "The Iranians have suggested that the Arab Spring was somehow a positive development for Tehran, the fact you see their principal ally in the region having completely lost legitimacy... would be a blow to Iran," he said. But he emphasized that the administration does not see a military intervention in Syria as the right step.
  • On the fate of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi, who senior lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates said on Tuesday should be re-arrested and extradited to the United States, Rhodes said the extradition issue was a legal question for the Justice Department, "but the president never thought he should have been released in the first place ... so that continues to be our view."

The Cable

Wikileaked: Obama administration told senators not to discuss Lockerbie bomber with Qaddafi

The U.S. embassy in Tripoli told a 2009 congressional delegation led by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) not to raise the issue of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi during its visit to Libya, according to diplomatic cables newly released by WikiLeaks.

This week, senior lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates said that the top priority of the new Libyan government should be  the re-arrest and extradition of  Meghrahi, who was sentenced in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, but then released in 2009 on compassionate grounds because he was supposedly dying of cancer. Just before his release, McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) visited Libya to meet with Muammar al-Qaddafi, but were advised by the U.S. embassy in Tripoli not to raise the Megrahi issue because it could become an irritant in the newly restored U.S.-Libya relationship.

"We do not expect the issue to be raised during your visit, but if it is, we believe the most helpful response would be to note that this is an issue for the Scottish Executive and that it would not be constructive to discuss the case as a bilateral issue," read the Aug. 10, 2009 cable.

The cable said that the Qaddafi government had requested compassionate release for Megrahi on July 24 and was discussing the matter with Scottish officials, but that the U.S. embassy in Tripoli had not conferred with the Qaddafi regime on the matter at all.

As Politico noted today, McCain and Lieberman totally ignored the embassy's advice and raised the Megrahi issue early and often with both Qaddafi and his son Muatassim, as an Aug. 14, 2009, diplomatic cable sent from Tripoli embassy reported.

"Muatassim reacted defensively, telling the CODEL that Megrahi ‘is an innocent man, and we believe it.' Muatassim then compared Megrahi's case to that of the Bulgarian nurses convicted in Libya of intentionally infecting 400 Libyan children with the HIV virus, arguing that they had been welcomed in Bulgaria as returning heroes even though they had been sentenced to life in prison," the cable read.

Col. Qaddafi emphasized that if Megrahi was released, neither he nor any other Libyan official could control the manner in which the Libyan people reacted. "They could even demonstrate against me," he said, forebodingly.

Senators and GOP candidates are set to press the Obama administration's to make the Megrahi case a key agenda item in the U.S.-Libya relationship with Transitional National Council, which now appears poised to take power.

For now, the administration's position is simply that they always officially opposed Megrahi's release. But they are not saying whether they will publicly call for his re-arrest or extradition to the United States.

"The secretary's made clear this guy should be behind bars," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. "The Department of Justice has the lead on these issues."

McCain memorialized his visit to Libya with a now infamous Aug. 15, 2009, tweet, in which he wrote, "Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his ‘ranch' in Libya - interesting meeting with an interesting man."

AFP/Getty Images