Before President Obama’s address to the nation about Libya, three questions about U.S. involvement there loomed large: Why, among all the places with vulnerable civilian populations, did the U.S. and its allies choose to intervene in Libya? Was the mission designed to prevent civilian suffering or to topple Moammar Gadhafi? How (and how quickly) would the U.S. extricate itself from this engagement?
In his speech Monday, Obama addressed these thorny questions and many others with cogency and clarity, though not all of the answers were persuasive. He was at his most eloquent when he discussed the Libyan regime’s crimes against its own people, his reluctance to put Americans in harm’s way and his eagerness to work within a multinational coalition. We were pleased to hear him reaffirm that the U.S. has limited interests in Libya and a limited role to play.
But at the same time, we were left unpersuaded on several key points. His dramatic recounting of Gadhafi’s misdeeds ― including the targeted killings of individuals, attacks on hospitals and ambulances, the choking off of food and water ― did not sufficiently explain why the U.S. and its allies would use military force in Libya and not in other states where governments brutalize their people. The president argued essentially that the humanitarian crisis in Libya was unique, but he did not describe genocide, or atrocities all that different from those that occur in many civil wars around the world, so he left us wondering where this mission fits with America’s foreign policy objectives more broadly.
Second, he was not terribly reassuring about the exit strategy. To be sure, he said that the U.S. would hand off the lead role in the operation to NATO and that he would not introduce ground troops or pursue a military strategy to depose Gadhafi ― all of which we were pleased to hear. But it was still unclear whether the nonmilitary steps aimed at ousting Gadhafi would succeed or how the allies would continue to protect civilians indefinitely if he does not leave. And if the regime does fall, what exactly is the plan for what comes next?
The president ended his speech by welcoming “the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way. Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.” One clear challenge ahead, of course, is to make good on that vision in dealing with oppressive regimes that are U.S. allies.
Obama may not have changed the minds of those who believe that the Libyan operation was unwise or of others who believe it didn’t go far enough. But no one can complain that he didn’t make a thoughtful, compelling case for his decision to intervene.
(Los Angeles Times, March 29)