During his address to the nation, Obama claimed, “When our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” What he failed to do was to explain how “our interests” were at stake in Libya, perhaps because he knows that there is no argument for the Libyan war based on U.S. interests. The president invoked securing the fortunes of Tunisian and Egyptian democracy, the need to deter dictators from using violence against protesters, and the credibility of the U.N. Security Council, but he did not defend this war in terms of serving American interests. Ruling out regime change as something that would destroy the coalition, Obama has accepted overseeing a stalemate between exceedingly weak rebels and an entrenched regime.
The most ominous of the warning signs was his comment about Iraq. Why reargue that war now? Answer: to justify cutting short the commitment to Libya. Obama’s problem is that the moment to take that position was before the Libyan intervention. If he truly did not think the outcome in Libya mattered if he had been willing to live with a Qaddafi victory then he could have hung back and allowed events to proceed. But having committed American power to the war, he committed America inescapably to the outcome. If that outcome is a divided, war-torn country, President Obama will not escape responsibility because he only used American airpower.
It seemed clear throughout the speech that the president put significant emphasis on the fact that there was a coalition (however small) and UN imprimatur on America's military action. Many critics will no doubt pounce on this as proof of President Obama's one-world liberalism, but I think it's his way of wiggling out of any precedent setting doctrine with respect to Libya. It's rare indeed to have the UN and the Arab League join hands to endorse military action against a Middle Eastern state. Obama is probably betting that the multilateral stars won't align like this again, thus sparing him the need to act if other regional despots go on their own murderous rampages.
Although he didn't articulate this point, the president and his aides know that from a strategic vantage point, a democratic movement in Bahrain will almost certainly be catalyzed with covert help from Iran, which wants to establish another harbor to contain the power of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, therefore, has more leeway. (That is also the home to America’s 5th Fleet.) There is no coherent opposition force in Yemen, and the United States worries that regime change would allow al-Qaida to flourish in that impoverished country where the terrorist group has already gained a foothold.
I was most struck by the last few minutes of the speech, when Obama sought to put the Libyan intervention in the context of the regional Arab uprising. He firmly embraced the forces of change, saying that history is on their side, not on the side of the oppressors. In doing so he deftly evoked two moments in our own history-first, explicitly, the American Revolution, and second, more slyly, abolitionism, with a reference to "the North Star," which happened to be the name of Frederick Douglass's newspaper. If you think that was unintentional, read this.
[W]hat happens if Gadhafi doesn’t simply go? What happens if the rebels can’t overrun him, as the Pentagon assesses? What happens in the event of a stalemate? How does the U.S. not escalate if Gadhafi hangs on? The fact that there’s no clarity after this speech is striking.
It was a beautiful speech, especially the end. But I still don't know how long we're going to be in Libya. Or what we ultimately want to see there, aside from Qaddafi leaving, somehow. Or what we're obligated to do, now that we've done what we said we were going to do, but not really. It was vintage Obama: I'm moved but unconvinced.
[Obama] offered little sense of how long it might take to dislodge the tyrant, whether we're willing to push him harder (for instance, by possibly supplying arms to the Libyan rebels) and how America would respond should Libya collapse into an Iraq-like state of violent anarchy. Of course, Obama himself may not know the answers to those questions--which is what has critics of his Libya policy nervous. But in place of those uncertainties, Obama did offer something like a larger doctrine.
The president was unapologetic, freedom-agenda-embracing, and didn’t shrink from defending the use of force or from appealing to American values and interests. Furthermore, the president seems to understand we have to win in Libya. I think we will.
The obligatory gestures about a "difficult task" -- "Libya will remain dangerous..."; "Forty years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions" -- barely scratched the surface of what could go wrong here. I did not expect the president to run down the "dirty dozen" list of bad things that might happen. That is the work of strategic planning shops. But I did expect more steeling of the American public for possible adverse developments. And I did expect more discussion of why not intervene in other cases that looked, on the surface, like they might match the Libyan case on the atrocity scale.
If Colonel Qaddafi is swept quickly from power, or reduced to impotence in some bunker, nobody will care very much about the manner in which Mr Obama put together his alliance and campaign. It might indeed be remembered as an extraordinary foreign-policy success. After the rescue of Kuwait in 1991, however, the first President George Bush also expected Saddam Hussein's regime to collapse in short order. Mr Obama's team says the circumstances this time are entirely different. They had better be right.
[Obama] pretty much said "Mission Accomplished." The only difference was that there wasn’t any banner behind him.
Earlier thoughts here.
(Photo: Fadi Tarapolsi holds up a pre-Gaddafi Libyan flag while standing vigil in front of the White House March 28, 2011 in Washington, DC. Tarapolsi and his parents have been living in exile in the United States from Libya more than 30 years ago. He said he has held vigil at the White House every night for the past five weeks and will continue to do so until Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is out of power. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)