Why Obama had to act in Libya

"We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen."  

This was the blunt, powerful heart of President Obama's speech last night explaining American intervention in Libya: had the international community not acted when it did, thousands would have been slaughtered as the world watched.   The effects of that decision would have been felt across the Middle East, where America would have been deemed to have abandoned the people struggling for freedom in the Arab world.  And it would have quite simply been wrong. I have long been conflicted about the decision to intervene militarily, primarily because of the absence of a clearly defined end-game and the risk of escalation. I doubt that Obama's speech will convince many of his critics. But I now think that he made the right call.

My conversations with administration officials, including but not limited to the one recounted by the indefatigable Laura Rozen, convinced me that they believed that a failure to act when and how they did would have led to a horrific slaughter in Benghazi and then across Libya.  There was no mad rush to war, and certainly no master plan to invade Libya to grab its oil.  The administration resisted intervening militarily until they had no choice, preferring at first to use diplomatic means and economic sanctions to signal that Qaddafi's use of force would not help keep him in power.  The military intervention came when those had failed, and when Qaddafi's forces were closing in on Benghazi and he was declaring his intention to exterminate them like rats.  

And my conversations with Arab activists and intellectuals, and my monitoring of Arab media and internet traffic, have convinced me that the intervention was both important and desirable.  The administration understood, better than their critics, that Libya had become a litmus test for American credibility and intentions, with an Arab public riveted to al-Jazeera.  From what I can see, many people broadly sympathetic to Arab interests and concerns are out of step with Arab opinion this time.    In the Arab public sphere, this is not another Iraq -- though, as I've warned repeatedly, it could become one if American troops get involved on the ground and there is an extended, bloody quagmire.  This administration is all too aware of the dangers of mission creep, escalation, and the ticking clock on Arab and international support which so many of us have warned against.  They don't want another Iraq, as Obama made clear.... even if it is not obvious that they can avoid one. 

The centrality of Libya to the Arab narrative about regional transformation is the main reason why I am unmoved by the "double standards" argument that we are not intervening in Cote D'Ivoire.  It did matter more to core U.S. national interests because the outcome would affect the entire Middle East.  Thanks to al-Jazeera's intense focus on Libya, literally the whole Arab world was watching, dictators and publics alike.  Not acting would have been a  powerful action which would have haunted America's standing in the region for a decade.  And many of the same people now denouncing the intervention would have been up in arms at America's indifference to Arab life -- it is all too easy to imagine denunciations such as "the dream of the Cairo speech died in the streets of Benghazi as Barack Obama proved that he does not care about Muslim lives." 

The double-standards argument applies more forcefully to Bahrain, where attempts to mediate a negotiated reform package fell apart in favor of Saudi/GCC intervention and a descent into nasty sectarianism.  Obviously the naval base in Bahrain and its strategic importance to Saudi Arabia are decisive factors.  And the U.S. is paying a price for that failure with parts of Arab public opinion and with many regional analysts, as it should (though al-Jazeera's limited coverage and the unfortunate popularity of the sectarian Sunni-Shi'a narrative blunt that edge slightly). The double-standards argument about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still there and strong.  One of the most frequent points I hear made in the Arab arena is still "where was the No-Fly Zone for Gaza?"  The U.S. pays a political price for that, and if a new Israeli war breaks out with Gaza or Hezbollah, and the U.S. is forced to take sides, then this may very well wash away all the administration has done to try to engage and build partnerships with the newly empowered Arab public.   Those are real problems -- but neither of them should mean that the U.S. can't at least get Libya right. 

That doesn't mean that there are no problems.  The administration hasn't done a great job communicating its position, particularly on the question of whether or not Qaddafi's departure is the goal (I personally think it has to be).   While I hope that today's London meeting will produce more clarity on a political path forward, I haven't seen much to suggest one yet.  I'm still very worried about the endgame, that Qaddafi might hold on and drive a problematic partition or that the U.S. and NATO will be tempted to escalate with ground forces to prevent such a hurting stalemate.  I worry about second-order effects across the region, including the likely terminal impact on the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program since Tehran can see clearly that Qaddafi's deal with the West did not buy him long term support. But I also see the potential upsides of a successful intervention.  And then there's the push to apply the Libya model to Syria or Iran or even Saudi Arabia, which most people understand would be disastrous but which may well soon confront the administration whether it likes it or not. But for all of that, I feel that the U.S. did what it had to do, when it had to do it. 

Official White House photo, Pete Souza, January 28, 2011

Marc Lynch

Libya in its Arab Context

President Obama's decision to join an international military intervention in Libya has met with a largely negative response in the United States across the political spectrum. Critics correctly point to a wide range of problems with the intervention: the absence of any clear planning for what comes after Qaddafi or for what might happen if there is an extended stalemate, doubts about the opposition, the White House's ignoring of Congress and limited explanations to the American public, the selectivity bias in going to war for Libya while ignoring Bahrain and Yemen, the distraction from other urgent issues.  I have laid out my own reservations about the intervention here and here

This emerging consensus misses some extremely important context, however. Libya matters to the United States not for its oil or intrinsic importance, but because it has been a key part of the rapidly evolving transformation of the Arab world.  For Arab protestors and regimes alike, Gaddafi's bloody response to the emerging Libyan protest movement had become a litmus test for the future of the Arab revolution.  If Gaddafi succeeded in snuffing out the challenge by force without a meaningful response from the United States, Europe and the international community then that would have been interpreted as a green light for all other leaders to employ similar tactics. The strong international response, first with the tough targeted sanctions package brokered by the United States at the United Nations and now with the military intervention, has the potential to restrain those regimes from unleashing the hounds of war and to encourage the energized citizenry of the region to redouble their efforts to bring about change. This regional context may not be enough to justify the Libya intervention, but I believe it is essential for understanding the logic and stakes of the intervention by the U.S. and its allies.


Libya's degeneration from protest movement into civil war has been at the center of the Arab public sphere for the last month. It is not an invention of the Obama administration, David Cameron or Nicolas Sarkozy.  Al-Jazeera has been covering events in Libya extremely closely, even before it tragically lost one of its veteran cameramen to Qaddafi's forces, and has placed it at the center of the evolving narrative of Arab uprisings.  Over the last month I have heard personally or read comments from an enormous number of Arab activists and protest organizers and intellectuals from across the region that events in Libya would directly affect their own willingness to challenge their regimes. The centrality of Libya to the Arab transformation undermines arguments  that Libya is not particularly important to the U.S. (it is, because it affects the entire region) or that Libya doesn't matter more than, say, Cote D'Ivoire (which is also horrible but lacks the broader regional impact). 

The centrality of Libya to the Arab public sphere and to al-Jazeera carries a less attractive underside, though.  The focus on Libya has gone hand in hand with al-Jazeera's relative inattention to next-door Bahrain, where a GCC/Saudi  intervention has helped to brutally beat back a protest movement and tried to cast it as a sectarian, Iranian conspiracy rather than as part of the narrative of Arab popular uprisings.  It has also distracted attention from Yemen, where rolling protests and mass government defections might finally today be bringing down the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime. The TV cameras have also largely moved on from the urgent issues surrounding the ongoing transitions in Tunisia and Egypt. Cynics might argue that the GCC and Arab League have been willing to support the intervention in Libya for precisely that reason, to keep the West distracted from their own depradations. 

Finally, as I warned last week, Arab support for an intervention against Qaddafi to protect the Libyan people rapidly begins to fray when the action includes Western bombing of an Arab country. It should surprise nobody that the bombing campaign has triggered anger among a significant portion of the Arab public, which is still powerfully shaped by the Iraq war and aggrieved by perceived double standards (one of the most common lines in Arab debates right now is "where was the No Fly Zone over Gaza?").  Amr Moussa's flip-flopping on the Arab League's stance towards the intervention should be seen as part of that tension between the desire to help the Libyan people and continuing suspicion of Western motives.  Skeptical voices matter too --  ignoring or ridiculing influential or representative voices simply because their message is unpalatable is a mistake too often made in this part of the world. 

I continue to have many, many reservations about the military intervention, especially about the risk that it will degenerate into an extended civil war which will require troops regardless of promises made today.  But as I noted on Twitter over the weekend, for all those reservations I keep remembering how I felt at the world's and America's failure in Bosnia and Rwanda. And I can't ignore the powerful place which Libya occupies in the emerging Arab transformations, and how the outcome there could shape the region's future. Failure to act would have damned Obama in the eyes of the emerging empowered Arab public, would have emboldened brutality across the region, and would have left Qaddafi in place to wreak great harm.  I would have preferred a non-military response -- as, I am quite sure, the Obama administration would have preferred.  But Qaddafi's military advances and the failure of the sanctions to split his regime left Obama and his allies with few choices.  The intervention did not come out of nowhere. It came out of an intense international focus on the Arab transformations and a conviction that what happens now could shape the region for decades. 

Hope may not be a plan, but for now I'll continue to hope that the gamble pays off quickly: that Qaddafi follows Saleh in rapidly toppling from the throne, that military action can be rapidly halted, that the momementum of the Arab uprising can be regained, and that all other regional leaders conclude that brute force will not sustain them in power. It may not have been a gamble I would have chosen, but now the die is cast. 

U.S. Department of Defense, March 19, 2011