It all seems rather mad, doesn’t it? The decision to become involved militarily in the Libyan civil war couldn’t take place within a less hospitable context. The U.S. is reeling from spending and deficits, we’re already in two wars, our military has been stretched to the limit, we’re restive at home, and no one, really, sees President Obama as the kind of leader you’d follow over the top. “This way, men!” “No, I think I’ll stay in my trench.” People didn’t hire him to start battles but to end them. They didn’t expect him to open new fronts. Did he not know this?
He has no happy experience as a rallier of public opinion and a leader of great endeavors; the central initiative of his presidency, the one that gave shape to his leadership, health care, is still unpopular and the cause of continued agitation. When he devoted his entire first year to it, he seemed off point and out of touch.
This was followed by the BP oil spill, which made him look snakebit. Now he seems incompetent and out of his depth in foreign and military affairs. He is more observed than followed, or perhaps I should say you follow him with your eyes and not your heart. So it’s funny he’d feel free to launch and lead a war, which is what this confused and uncertain military action may become.
What was he thinking? What is he thinking?
Which gets me to Mr. Obama’s speech, the one he hasn’t given. I cannot for the life of me see how an American president can launch a serious military action without a full and formal national address in which he explains to the American people why he is doing what he is doing, why it is right, and why it is very much in the national interest. He referred to his aims in parts of speeches and appearances when he was in South America, but now he’s home. More is needed, more is warranted, and more is deserved. He has to sit at that big desk and explain his thinking, put forward the facts as he sees them, and try to garner public support. He has to make a case for his own actions. It’s what presidents do! And this is particularly important now, because there are reasons to fear the current involvement will either escalate and produce a lengthy conflict or collapse and produce humiliation.
Without a formal and extended statement, the air of weirdness, uncertainty and confusion that surrounds this endeavor will only deepen.
The questions that must be answered actually start with the essentials. What, exactly, are we doing? Why are we doing it? At what point, or after what arguments, did the president decide U.S. military involvement was warranted? Is our objective practical and doable? What is America’s overriding strategic interest? In what way are the actions taken, and to be taken, seeing to those interests?
Matthew Kaminski of the editorial board explains America’s role in the Libyan campaign.
From those questions flow many others. We know who we’re against—Moammar Gadhafi, a bad man who’s done very wicked things. But do we know who we’re for? That is, what does the U.S. government know or think it knows about the composition and motives of the rebel forces we’re attempting to assist? For 42 years, Gadhafi controlled his nation’s tribes, sects and groups through brute force, bribes and blandishments. What will happen when they are no longer kept down? What will happen when they are no longer oppressed? What will they become, and what role will they play in the coming drama? Will their rebellion against Gadhafi degenerate into a dozen separate battles over oil, power and local dominance?
What happens if Gadhafi hangs on? The president has said he wants U.S. involvement to be brief. But what if Gadhafi is fighting on three months from now?
On the other hand, what happens if Gadhafi falls, if he’s deposed in a palace coup or military coup, or is killed, or flees? What exactly do we imagine will take his place?
Supporters of U.S. intervention have argued that if we mean to protect Libya’s civilians, as we have declared, then we must force regime change. But in order to remove Gadhafi, they add, we will need to do many other things. We will need to provide close-in air power. We will probably have to put in special forces teams to work with the rebels, who are largely untrained and ragtag. The Libyan army has tanks and brigades and heavy weapons. The U.S. and the allies will have to provide the rebels training and give them support. They will need antitank missiles and help in coordinating air strikes.
Once Gadhafi is gone, will there be a need for an international peacekeeping force to stabilize the country, to provide a peaceful transition, and to help the post-Gadhafi government restore its infrastructure? Will there be a partition? Will Libyan territory be altered?
None of this sounds like limited and discrete action.
In fact, this may turn out to be true: If Gadhafi survives, the crisis will go on and on. If Gadhafi falls, the crisis will go on and on.
Everyone who supports the Libyan endeavor says they don’t want an occupation. One said the other day, “We’re not looking for a protracted occupation.”
Mr. Obama has apparently set great store in the fact that he was not acting alone, that Britain, France and Italy were eager to move. That’s good—better to work with friends and act in concert. But it doesn’t guarantee anything. A multilateral mistake is still a mistake. So far the allied effort has not been marked by good coordination and communication. If the conflict in Libya drags on, won’t there tend to be more fissures, more tension, less commitment and more confusion as to objectives and command structures? Could the unanticipated results of the Libya action include new strains, even a new estrangement, among the allies?
How might Gadhafi hit out, in revenge, in his presumed last days, against America and the West?
And what, finally, about Congress? Putting aside the past half-century’s argument about declarations of war, doesn’t Congress, as representative of the people, have the obvious authority and responsibility to support the Libyan endeavor, or not, and to authorize funds, or not?
These are all big questions, and there are many other obvious ones. If the Libya endeavor is motivated solely by humanitarian concerns, then why haven’t we acted on those concerns recently in other suffering nations? It’s a rough old world out there, and there’s a lot of suffering. What is our thinking going forward? What are the new rules of the road, if there are new rules? Were we, in Libya, making a preemptive strike against extraordinary suffering—suffering beyond what is inevitable in a civil war?
America has been through a difficult 10 years, and the burden of proof on the need for U.S. action would be with those who supported intervention. Chief among them, of course, is the president, who made the decision as commander in chief. He needs to sit down and tell the American people how this thing can possibly turn out well. He needs to tell them why it isn’t mad.