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Obama's reassuring hypocrisy on Libya
The president is doing the right thing in the Middle East — and saying the opposite
David Frum
David Frum
A

nd people say George W. Bush lied about Iraq!

President Obama’s campaign in Libya may be the most deceptively sold U.S. military policy since Franklin Roosevelt’s “all aid short of war” policy in World War II.
 
In his speech to the nation Monday night, the President Obama described a military action in Libya where:

  • The main U.S. military commitment has already ended

  • NATO is relieving the U.S. of operational responsibility

  • The U.S. mission is limited to protecting civilian populations

  • The U.S. goal is strictly humanitarian

  • And the U.S. takes no view about Libya’s future government beyond a vague preference that Moammar Gadhafi move on

As described, this is a preposterous policy. Fortunately, the president is giving every sign of not believing a word of it.

The Libyan war takes the Bush frailty to extremes: The explanations are laughable on their face — but the policy seems astute and promising.

In fact, the U.S. commitment continues, and will likely enlarge. And despite the president’s statement that no U.S. “ground forces” will enter Libya, does anybody doubt that — as in Afghanistan in 2001 — U.S. personnel are present “on the ground”?

Any large-scale NATO operation is inescapably U.S.-led. The NATO commander in charge of the Libyan operation is a Canadian three-star general. With all due respect to the heroic military traditions of my native land, it is not very likely that a Canadian three-star is running a war involving large U.S., French, and British military assets.

We all know that the U.S. mission is aimed at the overthrow of Gadhafi. The U.S. is engaged in sophisticated propaganda operations urging Gadhafi's troops to turn on him. And it’s reported that the U.S. is negotiating with Gadhafi about a secure exit from Libya.

The U.S. mission is as deeply concerned with European energy security as with Libya's unfolding humanitarian crisis. Critics correctly point out that the U.S. has managed to ignore many other humanitarian crises — and is, in fact, ignoring one right now in Ivory Coast. This particular crisis is occurring in a country from which NATO ally Italy buys more than one-fifth of its net oil imports, and in which Britain has very large investments. We are not going to war for oil. But we very rarely go to war without oil.

And of course, the Obama administration is obviously very concerned about unintentionally bringing Islamic radicals to power in Libya. Unlike the Sarkozy government, the Obama administration has not recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of the country. It is instead proposing a conference at which various factions will be present — and at which Western governments will have more scope to pick and choose, as happened in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban. By concentrating on the air war, and providing only limited help to the rebels on the ground, the Obama administration keeps the rebels weak and maximizes NATO’s relative sway over Libya’s future.

Henry Kissinger used to contrast the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations: “Under Clinton, the explanations were much better than the policies; under Bush, the policies were always much better than the explanations.”

The Libyan war takes the Bush frailty to extremes: The explanations are laughable on their face — but the policy seems astute and promising.

Oscar Wilde has one of his characters remark to another: “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.” In that sense, the contrast between this president’s actions in Libya and his justifications is hypocrisy at its most shameless — and most welcome.

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