“The earthquake in Japan has temporarily diverted attention away from the Middle East. Once rescue and humanitarian operations are engaged there, the spotlight will return to developments in North Africa and the Persian Gulf.
US officials are aware that this distraction may afford the Libyan regime just the time it needs to re-assert its hold over the country. Our sources advise that, although there was a vigorous debate within the administration, Defense Secretary Gates won the argument. As a result, short of a major turn of events, there will be no use of US military force in Libya.
Gates set the tone in his speech of 25th February. Despite the flurry of diplomatic activity since that time and statements, including those by President Obama, that all options remain open, using the military in an offensive capacity is not one of them. The statement from the Director of National Intelligence to the effect that Washington expects the Libyan regime to prevail against the rebel movement reflected Gates’ position.
Further as we have noted before, real concern continues to be focused on Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Here the potential for Sunni-Shia confrontation is seen as having potential catastrophic implications for the US position in the Middle East. For the moment, US officials are encouraged by the atmosphere of relative calm they detect in the Kingdom. Gates was quietly asked by the Saudi government to postpone a visit scheduled for March 11th, but this does not presage any breakdown in relations.
It is more a wish on the part of the Saudis to avoid what might be construed as, in the words of one senior US official, “inappropriate outside pressure” at a delicate time. Behind the scenes, contacts with the Saudi and Bahraini leadership continue.
The preoccupation with the Middle East is deflecting attention from Afghanistan. Here, Pentagon officials tell us privately that, despite optimistic public statements by US commanders pointing to tactical gains, the underlying sentiment at the Pentagon is that strategic success will not be achievable. Relations with the Kabul government are fragile. Nevertheless, it appears almost certain that General Petraeus will success Admiral Mullen as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in July.
On another front, the State Department faces major cuts in its operating budget, including aid and contributions to international organizations, thus raising concerns that the US may find it difficult to maintain some of its international financial obligations.”