I’m confused as to what we are trying to accomplish in Libya and why. Consider these excerpts from an article in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune:
"President Obama warned Libyan leader Muammar Kadafi to halt attacks on Libya civilians or face international military retaliation, but repeatedly emphasized Friday that American goals and role in this Middle Eastern intervention will be sharply limited.
… Obama demanded that Kadafi pull back the forces that are now close to obliterating an outgunned rebel force after a running month-long battle.
‘Let me be clear,’ Obama said …. ‘If Col. Kaddafi does not comply with this resolution, the international community will impose consequences. The resolution will be enforced through military action.’
But even as he threatened the erratic leader, Obama offered reassurances to groups of people who are anxious about the prospect of another U.S. military action in the Middle East: Arabs, anti-war Americans, and even the Pentagon, which has repeatedly voiced its reluctance to plunge into another vaguely defined engagement.
Obama said that, unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan, others will take the lead in this military assault, including the French, British and the Arabs.
He said the U.S. goal would be solely protection of civilians, and not regime change — though he had demanded only a week ago that Kadafi ‘must go.’”
So what are we doing here? Previously, as the article noted, President Obama said that Colonel Gaddafi must go. Now he seems to be merely saying that Colonel Gaddafi must not attack or, it appears, threaten to attack civilians or civilian areas. Colonel Gaddafi has already declared a cease-fire. If he really complies with that (a big “if”, I realize), is he to be attacked because he is “threatening” to attack civilians? What if Colonel Gaddafi merely attacks rebel forces? Is that okay? Or are Gaddafi’s forces to be attacked because attacking rebel military forces also threatens civilians?
If Colonel Gaddafi does stop fighting, what do the rebels do? While there are reports that Egypt is supplying the rebels,* that would seem to violate the UN’s arms embargo on Libya, which applies to all of Libya, not just the Gaddafi government. But if the rebels aren’t somehow armed, how can they beat Colonel Gaddafi’s forces?
What do we do if there is a stalemate? We enforced a no-fly zone over Iraq for a decade. How long is anybody willing to continue this one? If something had been done three weeks ago, when the rebels had the momentum, this no-fly zone, etc., might have been enough to defeat and oust Colonel Gaddafi. But now that momentum has shifted back to Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, how do we get rid of him? Because, for all the words about protecting civilians, this is about getting rid of Colonel Gaddafi. But there has been no clear statement of how this is to be done.
But beyond the lack of clarity of the mission is the lack of clear support for the mission. While President Obama was saying “Gaddafi must go,” Secretary of Defense Gates was saying that a no-fly zone would be, in effect, an act of war.
And then, even when President Obama announced the U.S.’s policy on Friday, there was fence sitting:
"The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya, and we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal, specifically the protection of civilians in Libya. In the coming weeks we will continue to help the Libyan people with humanitarian and economic assistance so that they can fulfill their aspirations peacefully."
This is not a proper mission. “We will bomb Colonel Gaddafi’s forces until they are nice to Libyan civilians” does not work. Is this something to risk American lives for? I could understand putting troops at risk to get rid Colonel Gaddafi. I am not sure I would agree, but I could understand the argument. But risking soldiers to force Colonel Gaddafi to be nice?
Secretary of State Clinton said that “[w]e have every reason to fear that, left unchecked, Gaddafi will commit unspeakable atrocities.” But we need somebody to explain why the atrocities that Colonel Gaddafi might commit require us to act while atrocities actually being committed in the eastern Congo or Côte d’Ivoire do not.** I can come up with some reasons, but the Administration needs to explain its reasoning to the American people.
Just as importantly, we will have to see what kind of active support President Obama gives this policy. I have commented before on the President’s failure to go out and actively support what we are doing in Afghanistan. There has not been much effort by the Administration so far to convince the American people to support any action in Libya. What is the Administration going to do now to get that support? More importantly, what is President Obama going to do?
It might be trite, but if a president is willing to risk the lives of American servicemen and women on a particular policy, he must be willing to risk something, too. You never get the feeling that President Obama feels strongly enough about what we are doing in Afghanistan to risk much there. At the same time he announced the mini-surge in Afghanistan, he also announced a withdrawal date because, as he is quoted as saying in Bob Woodward’s book, he couldn’t lose the whole Democratic Party.
Our soldiers and pilots and members of the Navy are risking their lives for this mission. What is President Obama willing to risk?
* Charles Levinson and Matthew Rosenberg, "Egypt Military Said to Ship Arms To Libyan Rebels," The Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2011.
** Chaotic Côte d’Ivoire, Don't forget it," The Economist, March 12, 2011.
Update (3/20/11 9:35 pm): Changed "puts" to "putting" in fifth paragraph from the end.