President Barack Obama said the U.S. is examining all options for pressuring Libya to end a violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators, and he is dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Switzerland to work with her counterparts from other nations on a coordinated response.
In his first remarks on the uprising that has split the North African country and prompted a deadly response from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and his loyalists, Obama described “the suffering and bloodshed” as “outrageous” and said those responsible must be held accountable.
“These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency,” Obama said yesterday at the White House after meeting with Clinton.
While Obama didn’t specify what steps he would pursue if Qaddafi doesn’t halt reprisals against the opposition, officials at the White House and State Department said earlier they may include punitive measures, such as freezing Libyan assets, that might be taken by the U.S. alone or in conjunction with other nations.
“That certainly includes looking at sanctions that could be imposed, either bilaterally or multilaterally,” said Philip J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman. “We believe it’s important to coordinate our efforts with the national community, our European allies, the United Nations and organizations like the Arab League.”
That is part of the reason for Clinton’s trip. Obama said she will attend a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Feb. 28 to work on a unified approach. Libya is a member of the council, and there have been calls to expel the country from that body.
The U.S. also is continuing to address turmoil elsewhere in the region and is seeking ways to support a peaceful transition in Egypt and Tunisia, where protests have toppled longtime leaders.
The uprising in Libya, which has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, has been the most violent yet of the anti-government protests that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa over the past six weeks. Clashes between anti-government rebels and Qaddafi’s forces have resulted in the deaths of about 300 people, according to Human Rights Watch. Qaddafi warned Feb. 22 that he will fight the rebellion to his death.
The administration hasn’t moved yet to take direct action against Qaddafi. That may be because U.S. officials are concerned about possible retaliation against American personnel still in the country, said Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush.
The U.S. is rushing to evacuate its citizens from Libya. A ferry scheduled to leave Tripoli yesterday with U.S. diplomats and family members was delayed by bad weather.
Crowley said Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman has spoken with Libyan officials in recent days and “requested the Libyan government’s cooperation as we remove our citizens and our diplomats and their families from Libya.”
Once U.S. personnel are safe, the White House should move against the Qaddafi regime, Abrams said.
Abrams, now a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said U.S. actions might include freezing the country’s bank accounts so Qaddafi loyalists can’t raid them, imposing an international arms embargo on Libya and creating a no-fly zone over the country enforced by the U.S. and NATO or European Union air forces.
“I don’t see any reason for us not to begin that discussion,” Abrams said. “You may run into Russian and Chinese vetoes, but the discussion itself would show how much we are concerned about this use of violence against the population.”
Clinton said at a news conference earlier yesterday that “everything is on the table.”
U.S. sanctions on Libya were lifted by Bush in 2004 in return for Qaddafi’s agreement to dismantle his country’s program to pursue chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
The sanctions, imposed in 1986 because of Libyan involvement in terrorist attacks, limited U.S. oil development there, restricted air service between the two countries and froze about $1.3 billion in Libyan assets.
Among the U.S. companies that do business in Libya now are Marathon Oil Corp., ConocoPhillips and Halliburton Co. all based in Houston; New York-based Hess Corp. and Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has urged U.S. and international oil companies to cease operations in Libya.
The administration is monitoring oil markets for any effect on prices from the unrest in Libya and its impact on the economy, Austan Goolsbee, chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters today.
Echoing remarks by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made yesterday, Goolsbee said the U.S. recovery can withstand the oil price increases that have occurred so far because of the turmoil.
“Anything like we have seen so far, neither we nor the private sector has forecast that would derail our recovery,” Goolsbee said at a breakfast today organized by the Christian Science Monitor.
Crude in New York today surged to the highest level in 29 months as Libya’s uprising reduced supplies from Africa’s third-biggest oil-producing country.
Futures climbed as much as 5.4 percent on estimates that the revolt caused Libya to lose as much as two-thirds of its oil output. The cuts create “significant upside risk” to prices and any further disruptions could create severe shortages in global oil markets, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said.
Crude oil for April delivery rose $1.24, or 1.3 percent, to $99.34 a barrel at 10:14 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract reached $103.41, the highest intraday price since Sept. 29, 2008. Futures are up 24 percent from a year ago.
Obama said yesterday the U.S. is applying the same “core principles” to Libya as it did in response to the popular uprisings that have toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as protests in nations across the Middle East and North Africa.
Those include condemnation of violence against protesters and support for the right of citizens to gather, speak freely and determine their own destiny, he said.
“These are human rights,” Obama said. “They are not negotiable. They must be respected in every country.”