Obama: The Reluctant Warrior on Libya

Obama and Clinton at presser on Libya - Kevin Lamarque Reuters - banner.jpg
credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Drawn toward an important inflection point in his presidency this week, President Obama revealed none of the lead-with-the-chin swagger of his predecessor. Playing to type, he instead adopted the mien of the reluctant warrior.

The president did not cajole the leaders of the Arab League to request enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya to ground the murderous airpower of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. He did not seem to twist the veto-wielding arms of the Russians and Chinese to win U.N. Security Council authorization for such action. When close allies France and the United Kingdom aggressively pushed the idea, the administration rightfully raised the bar by insisting that any U.N. resolution authorizing military actions go well beyond simply enforcing a no-fly zone.

Yet despite Obama's apparent ambivalence, on Thursday the Security Council voted to "establish a ban on all flights in the airspace" above Libya and authorized members to take "all necessary measures" except an occupation force to protect civilians and populated areas under threat of attack "including Benghazi."The Security Council vote virtually assures that if Qaddafi doesn't back down, for the third time in a decade the U.S. military will launch strikes on a Muslim country.

On Friday morning, the Libyan foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, declared an immediate cease-fire and a stop to all military operations.

During the drama of the past week, the signature strengths and weaknesses of Obama's leadership style were on clear display. The coalition that enforces a Libyan no-fly zone will have the backing of the Security Council and significant allied buy-in, and it will almost certainly include Arab countries. All three conditions were notably absent in the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003. They reflect an emphasis on multilateralism that harks back to the coalition-building of President George H. W. Bush before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

That kind of measured and equivocal response to rapidly unfolding events also has a downside, however. In the past week, the battlefield fortunes of the Libyan rebels have been decisively reversed, and Qaddafi loyalists are on the verge of assaulting the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Obama administration officials, to their credit, realized that fulfilling the U.N. resolution's goals of protecting Libyan civilians, including those in Benghazi, would require far more aggressive actions than simply enforcing a no-fly zone.

"The idea of enforcing a no-fly zone was floated in the first days of the protests, but with Qaddafi's forces having become so dominant on the ground, it doesn't address the real problem anymore," said Jeffrey White, a military-affairs fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a former Middle East expert at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The situation has now become so urgent that successfully reversing Qaddafi's offensive will almost certainly require enforcing a "no-drive zone" around Benghazi, he said, including air strikes against his tanks, mechanized infantry, and towed artillery. "What I find dumbfounding is that, at this late date, no one knows if that is what the Obama administration envisions or is actually proposing."

Administration officials acknowledge the Pentagon's well-known resistance to becoming ensnared in another Middle East conflict of indeterminate duration. Officials there are determined not to put a "Made in the USA" label on another military operation in a region where that brand has been badly sullied. Significant Arab support and participation was always viewed as a prerequisite to military action.

Perhaps the greatest limitation of such a passive stance, however, is confusion. Leading voices on Capitol Hill are demanding a debate on a declaration of war, even as lawmakers wonder aloud if that is what the administration has in mind.

European allies talk about "blurry signals"  from the White House, and they question the United States' commitment to the U.N. resolution and to a Libyan operation if it is endorsed. The American public seems strangely unaware and disengaged from what will likely prove a major commitment of U.S. military force.

Call it the curse of the "indispensable nation." It bedeviled Obama's two post-Cold War predecessors, and now it is his turn. With the Security Council votes tallied and the credibility of multilateralism on the line, the abstainers have gotten out of the way. Other nations will be willing to follow.

Now, someone has to lead a broad coalition that includes Arabs. In that way, it more closely resembles Bush 41 than Bush 43. On the other hand, the process left even close allies confused about where the United States stands and how far it is willing to go. But make no mistake, the Security Council vote almost certainly ensures that the United States will have to intervene in an overwhelming Muslim country for the third time in a decade.