Obama undoubtedly knows that he will face intense criticism if he stands by while Qaddafi ruthlessly crushes the rebellion. Knowing this, we must presume that outcome, assuming Obama allows it to occur, is part of a larger calculation of risks. What might those calculations be? Topping the list might be that Obama and his advisors have decided that they want to encourage no more rebellions in the Arab world, particularly in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere on the Sunni side of the Persian Gulf.
Events over the past four days have only reinforced that impression. The Obama administration backed the protesters in Egypt's Tahrir Square and openly pressed for Hosni Mubarak's resignation. That seemed like wise strategy at the time; the protesters weren't going away, the Egyptian army was not going to permit a violent repression of the revolt, and thus the United States government had to get on the right side of history.
But that was then. It seems clear now that the Obama team has had enough of that kind of excitement, especially with the situation in Bahrain seemingly getting worse every day. Veterans of the Carter administration no doubt get a burning sensation in their stomachs when they recall what happened to a U.S. ally on the eastern side of the Persian Gulf during the last two years of their one and only term in office. Today's White House staffers must shudder to think of history repeating itself on the western side of the Gulf.
As I mentioned last Friday, this may be the first among many reasons why the Obama team is in no mood to help the Libyan rebels. If the United States helped Libya's rebels, other protesters in the Arab world might get an impression that the Obama team does not want them to entertain.
Even if the Obama administration was otherwise inclined, Libya's rebels now seem like a weak horse on which to wager. Qaddafi's troops, led by his son's 32nd Brigade, are advancing up the coast road at a rate of up to 100 kilometers a day. Having today swept through Ajdabiya without much resistance, there are no obstacles remaining until Benghazi, which the loyalists could reach on Thursday. The rebels might attempt an urban insurgency strategy. If so, we might then see whether Qaddafi's approach to counterinsurgency fares better than FM 3-24.
Meanwhile in Bahrain, a place that might qualify as a vital U.S. interest, a 2,000 man Saudi-UAE intervention force rolled into Manama -- now under a three-month state of emergency - without any official comment from either the State Department or the White House. It must not have been a pleasant decision for Saudi officials to make. They know that this action could invite the very thing they are attempting to avoid, an excuse for Iran to incite Shiite mobilization in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. With protests in Bahrain getting worse by the day, these officials must have concluded that Shiite radicalization, whether incited by Iran or not, was already occurring and had to be confronted at an early stage.
Iran's nuclear and missile programs were catalyzing an eventual confrontation between Iran and the GCC countries. The civil breakdown in Bahrain has sped up that reaction. No one doubts that the U.S. has vital interests in the Persian Gulf and will have to respond to threats to those interests. Might 2011 resemble 1979? Not a pleasant thought for anyone, least of all those in the White House who, fairly or not, will be held responsible for events.