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Libya: A morass of justifications, objectives, and scope
President Obama's speech on Monday did nothing to explain why the United States has launched its war in the Middle East
 
Edward Morrissey
Edward Morrissey

Earlier this month, Hollywood honored the brilliant British film The King's Speech, which told the story of a head of state overcoming a debilitating stutter to lead a nation at war, with an Oscar for Best Picture. Unfortunately, President Obama failed to overcome his administration's debilitating stutter on Libya and the Middle East with his speech Monday night.

First, this address to the nation was overdue by 10 days. After sending the American military to war in Libya on March 18, the president then flew to South America for several days and talked trade rather than war. He became the first commander in chief in memory to leave the country in the first hours of a new war for an unrelated tour, and the first in memory not to speak directly to the American people to explain why he put men and women in harm's way in a new foreign adventure.

The performance of his administration only became worse as the week progressed. After both Democrats and Republicans in Congress angrily rebuked Obama for failing to properly consult Congress before going to war, he finally wrote an official notification of the hostilities to Capitol Hill two days after war operations commenced. The White House also arranged photo ops of the president juggling a soccer ball in the street and chair-dancing with children while U.S. planes and ships launched bombardments aimed at Moammar Gadhafi's army. 

By the end of the week, the administration was reduced to denying that it had committed acts of war at all. In a briefing for the press on Wednesday, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes called the attacks a "kinetic military action," a term straight from the Department of Redundancy Department. Is any "action" not "kinetic"? A day later, the Obama administration had deep-sixed the KMA nomenclature for the even more unwieldy "time-limited, scope-limited military action" to avoid using the word war.

The explanations of scope and time in this "action" also grew more confused. Obama insisted during the week that the scope of American action would be limited to protecting civilians from Gadhafi's forces. Yet the coalition instead broadly attacked the Libyan military to reduce or eliminate its effectiveness, and, as The Washington Post noted on Wednesday, March 23, was not doing much to protect civilians in the near term at all. Obama himself appeared to leave open the possibility of coordinating military action with the rebels in a CNN interview on Thursday. 

With his speech, Obama stepped squarely into this chaotic morass of justifications, objectives, scope. But he didn't provide any answers at all.

By Sunday, the administration's arguments were in such disarray that Obama's proxies couldn't even agree on the same talk shows. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told ABC's Jake Tapper on This Week and NBC's David Gregory on Meet the Press that the United States had no "vital national interests" in Libya before Operation Odyssey Dawn began, nor did the country pose an imminent national threat. In the same interviews, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that America did have vital interests at stake, while also claiming that the multilateral agreement on the use of force overrode the need to consult Congress to commit U.S. troops to the effort — a sentiment hardly likely to be popular on Capitol Hill. 

During the week, Obama insisted that the military engagement would last "days and not weeks," but Gates contradicted that as well. Tapper quoted assessments from NATO officials that Odyssey Dawn could last three months or longer and asked Gates whether it would be over by the end of the year. Gates replied, "I don't think anybody knows the answer to that."

With his speech, Obama stepped squarely into this chaotic morass of justifications, objectives, scope.  But he didn't provide any answers at all. He asserted that the United States had intervened because, as a nation, we could not stand by while Libya's government massacred its citizens.  Fair enough; that standard was used by Bill Clinton in the Balkans, after all, to general acceptance from Americans. 

Later in the same speech, though, the president then said that the United States couldn't intervene to stop every government that threatened massacres and genocides. So why pick Libya? The president never answered that question. The "international community" was "mobilized," Obama explained near the end of the address. The international community has certainly been mobilized over Sudan, which has conducted a years-long genocide — long enough for then-candidate Barack Obama to pledge American action to stop the massacre of civilians. Sudan didn't get a no-fly zone, nor did Syria, Yemen, or Bahrain, whose governments have all attacked and killed dissenters in large numbers.

Nor was the president any clearer in his speech on a definition of victory, or an exit strategy. Obama insisted that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake," and a violation of the United Nations mandate for the operation. Obama reiterated his demand that Gadhafi relinquish power immediately, though, and then said that the United States would act to "deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gadhafi leaves power." If America does that while conducting military operations targeting Gadhafi's military forces and assets, how is that any different than pursuing regime change as part of our overall war strategy? After all, it's the same government doing it all at the same time.

The military had completed its mission, Obama insisted, with the handoff to NATO. As the Associated Press pointed out within minutes of the speech, that claim is at best misleading. The United States will still supply the bulk of the forces used in the continuing operations against Libya, and American commanders will still lead the fight — just with NATO hats. 

No ground troops would land in Libya, Obama promised, but that got contradicted the very next day by Admiral James Stavridis, the American serving as the military commander of NATO who now runs Operation Odyssey Dawn. Stavridis told Congress on Tuesday that "the possibility of a stabilization regime exists," based on the model employed in the Balkans in the 1990s with ground troops protecting civilian centers. In fact, we still have 700 American soldiers stationed in Kosovo, as Stavridis himself reminded Congress, more than a decade after that conflict supposedly ended.

Finally, Obama insisted that he would not exceed the mandate to "protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners." Less than 24 hours later, The Guardian reported that Hillary Clinton had "paved the way" to start shipping arms to the rebels, which exceeds the mandate Obama himself reiterated. Not only does it pull the United States into an alliance with forces seeking to overthrow Gadhafi — and thus effect the "regime change" that Obama specifically eschewed as a goal for Odyssey Dawn — it puts weapons into hands of people whom we don't know well at all.  At the same time, Clinton pressed for arms shipments to the rebels, Stavridis admitted to Congress that they had detected "flickers" of al Qaeda in the rebellion. One rebel commander, Abdul Hakim al Hasadi, fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan. We know this because we captured him there and handed him over to Libya a few years ago. Gadhafi let him go as part of a deal with radical Islamists in 2008.

In other words, we picked a fight with a country that didn't directly threaten us to protect a rebellion that may well have ties to the terrorists we're trying to defeat in Afghanistan, while at the same time declaring victory and handing off the fight to an organization that relies primarily on American power, all to distance ourselves from an effort to topple a tyrant, even though no one has any idea of what would follow the regime. King George VI was more coherent than this without the speech therapy, and his leadership certainly inspired more confidence than Obama did on Monday.

 

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