Paul Pillar

The Libya Speech and Unanswered Questions

In his speech on Libya Monday night, President Obama had to cram in responses to many different criticisms from many different critics. To those who question the wisdom of using any U.S. military force in Libya, he painted a picture of a prospective humanitarian disaster and adduced multiple ways of defining U.S. strategic interests in Libya. To those who believe he should use military force more extensively in the interest of overthrowing the Libyan regime, he talked of splintered coalitions and memories of the Iraq War. To those worried about the monetary costs of the expedition, he said that limiting the United States to a “supporting role” will mean the cost to U.S. taxpayers “will be reduced significantly.” To those who charge he did not sufficiently involve Congress, he said he had in fact consulted with a “bipartisan Congressional leadership.” To those who accuse him of taking too long to decide on the intervention, he said this decision took much less time than what it took to intervene in Bosnia. To those who say he is a weak leader who unnecessarily deferred to foreign partners, he spoke of true leadership consisting less of doing things oneself than of bringing a coalition along.

With his argument containing so many moving parts, moving in so many different directions, some of them were bound to be strained or unpersuasive. The overdrawn picture of how much blood of innocent Libyans would be shed if the regime had been allowed to proceed unmolested by foreign air power is, despite Qaddafi's track record, only worst case speculation. The assertion that the coalition military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives simply doesn't square with the nature of many of the air strikes in the last few days—with the discrepancy between assertion and reality being great enough for the Libyan regime to make propaganda hay out of it. As for U.S. interests in Libya, any argument is going to be highly nuanced in a situation in which the secretary of defense already has explained that the United States has interests there but not “vital” ones. The president's image of flows of Libyan refugees overwhelming neighboring Tunisia or Egypt (which has a population of 80 million, compared with Libya's 6.5 million) is unconvincing as a U.S. interest pressing enough to warrant the use of military force. The contention that without the intervention a United Nations resolution would have been seen to be meaningless is also unconvincing; what is now the principal resolution followed the decision to intervene, not the other way around. The president also used the now-familiar argument about other dictators drawing lessons if Qaddafi is allowed to stay in power through the ruthless use of force. Apart from ignoring that, given the Libyan leader's earlier agreement with the U.S. and Britain, even more damaging lessons would be drawn if the U.S. participates in his ouster, this leaves unsaid the implications for further interventions elsewhere in the region. If the threat of a western-led military intervention is what is keeping other dictators in the region from misbehaving, is this a threat we are willing to execute? If so, where?

The biggest unanswered questions were among those asked most often in anticipation of the speech. How will this all end? And when will it end? The president was quite clear that removal of Qaddafi's regime is one of his objectives, and equally clear (notwithstanding the nature of some of the ongoing airstrikes) that this is not an objective of the military operation. He talked of other means of pressuring the regime, such as freezing financial assets, but gave no reason to expect or hope that either they or the Libyan rebels on the ground would succeed in ousting the dictator anytime soon. As long as they don't, then what?

And even when Qaddafi goes, there is the huge, messy matter of constructing something in his regime's place. The president allowed that things “will not happen overnight,” but the scale and scope of political (and economic) reconstruction and all the attendant problems in as battered down a society as Libya's, and especially what the expected U.S. role in this would be, were all left unsaid. The president probably felt safe in drawing a contrast between what he is doing and what his predecessor did in going to war in Iraq, because there are indeed huge differences. But recall that overthrowing the dictator in Iraq was the easy part. The long, very costly part was what came afterward. In Libya, if the combination of international sanctions, allied air power, and brave albeit disorganized Libyan rebels is enough to drive Qaddafi out, there will still be an “afterward.” What will be the U.S. role in that? Will we own some of the broken pottery?

The Libyan crisis has quickly become a large and unwelcome preoccupation of Barack Obama's presidency—unwelcome at least as much to Mr. Obama as to anyone else. The best part of his speech by far was the last portion, in which he spoke eloquently not of Libya but of his aspirations for the Middle East as a whole. If only he were free to operate at that level all the time.

Image by magharebia