Libyan rebels met with top national security officials at the White House Friday, but the delegation failed to achieve the main plum it sought from the visit: official recognition by the United States of Libya's self-declared interim government.
In a statement issued Friday afternoon, the White House said national security adviser Tom Donilon met with Mahmoud Gibril, president of the Libyan Transitional National Council's Executive Bureau, and his delegation as part of "close consultations" between the Obama administration and the council.
The US recognizes the council as a "legitimate and credible interlocutor of the Libyan people," the statement said. In contrast, it added, Mr. Donilon stressed to the Libyan opposition delegation that Muammar Qaddafi has "lost his legitimacy to rule" and reiterated President Obama's call for Colonel Qaddafi to "leave immediately."
But the statement skirted the issue of official US recognition of the interim government, just as it made no specific mention of efforts to make available to the rebels some of the $34 billion in Libyan funds the US holds.
Setback after positive week
The setback in Washington came at the end of what was largely a positive week for the rebels battling Qaddafi. Rebel fighters claimed some advances on the ground, taking control of the airport in the key western city of Misurata. Diplomatically the rebels also appeared to score a considerable gain when British Prime Minister David Cameron invited the Transitional National Council based in the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi to open a representative office in London.
But Washington continued to hold the rebels at arm's length, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates stating Thursday that the US reluctance to provide lethal aid to the Libyan opposition derives from the fact that "we don't know who they are."
Mr. Obama also appeared to studiously hold back from a full embrace of the rebels by failing to stop by the White House meeting – as he sometimes does in cases where he wishes to convey presidential support.
At the same time, however, the White House did indicate that NATO would pursue its air campaign against Qaddafi as long as the Libyan leader continues his assault on the Libyan people. Obama met in the White House Friday with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and officials said the two leaders agreed that the alliance would continue its military role under the UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians.
NATO stepped up its bombardment of Libyan targets this week, with some strikes hitting the compound in which Qaddafi is believed to be holed up. That led to speculation that the alliance is trying to kill him as a way of ending what looks increasingly like a stalemate in a civil war between the rebels and forces loyal to Qaddafi. The US, however, insists that the NATO bombing campaign is not an assassination mission.
Some urge negotiated settlement
Some regional experts are insisting, meanwhile, that it is time for a negotiated political settlement to what is becoming an increasingly untenable conflict for Libyan civilians.
In a sharp critique of how the NATO military campaign has achieved only "indecisive" results, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said Friday it is time for the alliance to switch course and press for a cease-fire and a political agreement.
"Instead of stubbornly maintaining the present policy and running the risk that the aftermath will be one of dangerous chaos [the international community] should act now to secure a negotiated end to the civil war and facilitate a new beginning for Libya's political life," the ICG said.
Americans express considerable ambivalence about the NATO campaign and American involvement in it when asked. But from all the mixed feelings, what comes out on top is support for what is interpreted as Obama's back-seat participation in the international campaign.
According to a Monitor/TIPP poll conducted May 1-6, a plurality of Americans say the US is "doing enough" in the NATO operation to protect Libyan civilians. In the poll, 41 percent said the US is doing "enough," while 25 percent said the US is doing "too much" and 23 percent said its role is "not enough."
Asked to judge Obama's performance on Libya: Half of those polled said he was doing a "good" or "average" job on the issue, but 16 percent said he was doing an "unacceptable" job while 11 percent said his performance was "excellent."