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Why Obama's Libya speech didn't matter

The president is tiptoeing through a mine-field of conflicting imperatives, seeking to justify a war that he has launched even though there are no vital strategic interests at stake. And make no mistake: it is a war. When your forces are flying hundreds of sorties, and firing missiles and dropping bombs on another country's armed forces, it is Orwellian to call it anything else. 

It is a war being fought for humanitarian objectives -- and there's nothing inherently wrong with that -- but the president's somewhat tortured parsing of the reasons for his action betrays an awareness that he's on shaky ground. And notice that almost all of his justifications were anticipatory in nature: we went to war to prevent a potential bloodbath in Benghazi, to prevent evens in Libya from possibly affecting developments elsewhere in the Arab world, and to forestall some future tarnishing of America's reputation. When you are as strong and secure as the United States really is, everything becomes a "preventive" operation. (Too bad we don't think that way when it comes to financial matters). Ironically, if the United States faced real threats to its security, it wouldn't be wasting much time or effort on operations like this one.

My main objection to the speech was that Obama lied when he said the United States would only pursue regime change through "non-military means," and when he said that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."  In today's New York Times, for example, we find the following lede:

Even as President Obama on Monday described a narrower role for the United States in a NATO-led operation in Libya, the American military has been carrying out an expansive and increasingly potent air campaign to compel the Libyan Army to turn against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi."

In other words, no matter what Obama said last night, the United States is in fact using its military forces to produce regime change in Libya.   And notice also that Obama's carefully parsed wording -- his willingness to use "non-military means" leaves open the possibility of covert action by the CIA, or even CIA-operated drone strikes. I'm not shocked by the president's "misspeaking" in this fashion, because leaders lie all the time and he's got to pretend to be conforming to the U.N. Security Council Resolution. But we shouldn't be taken in by this particular deception.

My second observation about the speech is that it probably didn't make much difference what Obama said last night. Because this was clearly a war of choice, what matters is not the justification that he provided for it or the ways he attempted to assuage concerns about possible precedents, the risks of getting bogged down, etc. What matters is what actually happens in Libya over the next few weeks or months. If Qaddafi is soon ousted and the rebel forces can establish a reasonably stable order there, then this operation will be judged a success and it will be high-fives all around. If a prolonged stalemate occurs, if civilian casualties soar, if the coalition splinters, or if a post-Qaddafi Libya proves to be unstable, violent, or a breeding ground for extremists, than Obama's eloquence last night will be disregarded and his decision will be judged a mistake.

Words and justifications do matter on occasion, but in the end its results that count.

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Stephen M. Walt

What do we know so far about the Libya intervention?

Based on the weekend's events, what do we now know about Libya?

1. As you can see from these Pentagon slides here, the United States did the the heavy lifting during the initial phases of the intervention against Libya (h/t Micah Zenko & Jeremy Pressman). Notice that these figures omit missile strikes, which were overwhelmingly conducted by the United States, so the data actually understate the extent to which the initial operations were dominated by Uncle Sam. We are now told that allied forces are going to take over (most of) the mission, but patrolling the no-fly-zone is pretty easy work now that Libya's air defenses (which were never very good to begin with) have been largely if not entirely decimated. In short, this intervention fits the pattern of prior "coalitions of the willing": the United States does most of the work, and the other members are there mostly to provide diplomatic cover. That distribution of burdens is supposed to change now, but sticking to that plan will probably depend on whether the rebels keep making progress. If their campaign bogs down, Qaddafi's forces are able to regroup, or the British and French start feeling the pinch, look for more pressure on Washington to get back in the game.

2. The operation in Libya has quickly moved beyond a purely humanitarian mission and the intervening forces are more-or-less openly seeking to topple Qaddafi's regime. The New York Times reports that coalition air strikes against Qaddafi's forces are continuing, and making it possible for the rebels to advance, even though the immediate humanitarian concern (i.e., the threat of some sort of massacre in Benghazi) has now been removed.

This latest version of "mission creep" isn't surprising. Several Western leaders (including President Obama) have already called for Qaddafi to step down, the International Criminal Court says it is investigating possible crimes against humanity, and in any case his pariah status in the international community is well-earned. What is still not clear is the human price of this expanded mission. Ousting Qaddafi may still require a lot of bloody ground fighting, NATO airpower will be less valuable once it is a matter of urban warfare, the collapse of his regime could usher in a prolonged power vacuum, with lots of regrettable human consequences. It's possible that tribal leaders can work out some sort of post-Qaddafi political formula, but a benign outcome of that sort is hardly guaranteed.

3. Whether this was the right decision or not won't be known for awhile (remember that "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq?) The two situations are hardly identical, but the Iraqi case does remind us that there is a big difference between defeating a regime's armed forces and driving its leaders from power, and being able to stand up a new government that can establish order. There's still a real risk of prolonged internal disarray if we succeed, and the Libyan case is likely to teach other autocrats that giving up their WMD programs is a good way to leave themselves vulnerable to U.S.-led attack. Bottom line: the costs vs. benefits calculation here won't be possible for some time.

As readers know, I've questioned the wisdom of this intervention, and I've thought that it should have been a European operation from the start. I'm still hoping that it resolves itself quickly, and that my concerns about the post-Qaddafi environment turn out to be unwarranted. I also hope that putting Libya back together afterwards turns out to be easier and less costly than I expect, and that success doesn't embolden the neoconservative/liberal interventionist alliance and lead them off in search of new wrongs to right in places we don't understand very well. In short, as is often the case, I hope I'm wrong about a lot of this. We'll see.

 

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