What now in Libya?

Before Obama’s speech on Libya last Monday, the main question was “why?”

President Obama seems have answered that question satisfactorily, judging by this week’s continuing debate on Libyan policy. Overall, Obama received much praise for his speech. “About as shrewd and sensible as any such address could have been,” wrote Fred Kaplan in Slate. Tom Friedman of The New York Times was proud of his president, but also worried: “Dear Lord, please make President Obama is lucky.”

Now, at the end of the week, the main question is another – what now?

On this, there is confusion. Amy Davidson of the New Yorker thought Obama should clearly state what it really is going on in Libya: war! And although Obama on Monday said that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” Senators Joseph Lieberman and John McCain called for regime change in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the military leadership, who have continually expressed their skepticism about a military action against Libya, could not be lured into a discussion on regime change at yesterday’s appearances before Congressional committees, other than saying that Gaddafi will probably be removed from power through economic and political pressures or by the Libyan people. Gates did not agree with the idea of the United States supplying
arms to and train the Libyan rebels. And on a matter of U.S. ground forces in Libya, he replied, according to the New York Times, “not as long as I have this job.”

Indeed, the military does not seem pleased about developments in Libya and it finds itself constantly having to raise objections as pressure increases for wider military efforts, wrote Leslie Gelb, former foreign affairs columnist of New York Times and president of Council on Foreign Relations, in today’s Daily Beast.

What we have here is a military intervention to save civilian lives at the same time as we hear President Obama say that Gaddafi must resign without specifying how it will happen. How are these two tasks and objectives reconciled?  The confusion also stems from the fact that the United States is not accustomed to multilateral operations where the U.S. is not playing the lead role – which is currently the case in Libya. No president, prior to Obama, has placed so much faith in the international community. What does this mean for the efforts to reach the end goal, Tom Friedman asked:

”My gut tells me that any kind of decent outcome there will require boots on the ground — either as military help for the rebels to oust Qaddafi as we want, or as post-Qaddafi peacekeepers and referees between tribes and factions to help with any transition to democracy. Those boots cannot be ours. We absolutely cannot afford it — whether in terms of money, manpower, energy or attention. But I am deeply dubious that our allies can or will handle it without us, either. And if the fight there turns ugly, or stalemates, people will be calling for our humanitarian help again. You bomb it, you own it.”

On a broader perspective, wrote Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, we are now beginning to see the outlines of a new Obama Doctrine in foreign policy, and the president
will over the next few weeks talk more explicitly about his hopes for and the future of the Arab world.

Obama clear and convincing on Libya

On the ninth day – maybe a little late – President Obama on Monday evening told the American people clearly and convincingly about the reasons for the military intervention in Libya and its results up to date.

He said that Libya was a unique situation, because Gaddafi threatened a massacre on his own people. And now the U.S. has done what we pledged to do.

“In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners. To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians. It took us 31 days. ”

“Moreover … I said that America’s role would be limited; that we would note put ground troops into Libya; that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners.”

About the future, he said that of course the world would be better off without Gaddafi.

“I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake. ”

It will not happen with U.S. ground forces in Libya, he said.

And with a reference to the war and regime change in Iraq:

“To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifice of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq’s future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya. ”

With reference to events in the Arab world, he stated that America stands side by side with the changes taking place there, but:

“The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change. Only the people of the region can do that. But we can make a difference. … I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back, and that we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms.”

And about the U.S. role in the world at large, he said what might be called the Obama Doctrine:

“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings in such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of
slaughter and mass graves before taking action. ”

And, he added:

“I’ve made it clear that I will never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally when necessary to defend our people, our homeland, our allies and our core interests…. There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are.  Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security -–responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce.  These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us.”

It’s also about what Obama has not said

It used to be – in the “good old days” – that in foreign policy crises, and especially when America went to war, they kept up in Washington, across party lines, and the president did not criticize.

It is, of course, no longer so. President Obama is criticized from the right but also from the left. In today’s Washington, the most important thing seems to be, as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said after the election last fall, that the number one priority is to see to it that President Obama is not re-elected next year.

So, in the case of Libya, there is never a word of praise for the President, no matter what he says or does. He was criticized for not creating a no-fly zone fast enough over Libya, and when he did it he was criticized for going in without a goal other than protecting civilians and without articulating an ultimate goal of intervention. How far he is willing to go? Until Gaddafi  is deposed?

We do not know. But straight answers are not always easy to give in complex situations like now in Libya. However, in this case, the critics are also to some extent right, for it is not so much what Obama said as that he has not said much at all. In contrast to its predecessors in the White House ahead of impending military conflict, Obama has not spoken to the nation on television. Not until tonight, Monday evening.  Still, it will not be a speech from the Oval Office at the White House, according to tradition, but from the National Defense University at Fort McNair, just outside Washington.

We’ll see what he says, but it seems unlikely to me that it will be very different from what he said in his traditional Saturday speech last week, when he said that a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and countless civilian lives have been saved. The international intervention is exactly the way in which the international community should act, he continued. The U.S. should not and cannot intervene wherever there is a crisis in the world, but it is our responsibility to act when innocent lives are at stake and when its leaders threaten bloodshed, as in Libya.

Not a word about the fate of Gaddafi. The resolution in the UN Security Council also says nothing about this, so Obama is sticking to the script. But Americans want more. They want clarity and they want to know how it will end.  Patience has never been America’s strong suit, especially in foreign policy, but they’ll probably have to wait a bit longer, also after tonight.

Libya and Japan dominate the news

When both the president and Congress leave town, as this week with Obama in Latin America and with  Congress on spring recess, Washington becomes quiet, a bit empty, and, largely, void of any big news.  Not this week, because of two major international crises in Japan and Libya, which have completely overshadowed Obama’s important trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.

After the Japanese nuclear disaster, it appears that American confidence in nuclear power has dropped dramatically. But the disaster has not led to an intensive debate in the country on the future of nuclear power. President Obama has so far maintained that nuclear power is, and remains, an important part of the new, greener, energy policies that he advocates. He has not been met with opposition on this point, despite an apparent growing concern among Americans for nuclear power.

On Libya it is different, where Washington is experiencing a vivid debate on the U.S. role and Obama’s leadership. The questions are many: about America’s future role in the multilateral military effort, about what multilateralism really means, and about the final goal of the intervention – is it to overthrow Gaddafi?

Leslie Gelb, for example, the former New York Times foreign affairs columnist and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is highly skeptical of the military intervention in Libya. In an article for the Daily Beast called “The horrible Libya hypocrisies”, Gelb writes that the U.S. has no vital interests in Libya but that Obama was “stampeded” into action by a combination of the neocons and liberal interventionists.  

Commentators on the right direction are criticizing Obama for not having taken the lead and acted strongly enough as it is deemed an American president. But in the country at large seems to approve strongly of Obama’s handling of the Libyan crisis. 68 percent of respondents in a new CBS News poll support the air attacks against Libya and the imposing of a no-fly zone there. And over half of those surveyed approve of Obama’s actions.

His support among Republicans on Libya is much larger than their support for his economic and budget policy. That could prove to be an advantage for Obama ahead of next year’s presidential election.

Obama’s diplomatic victory on Libya

The UN Security Council vote and the European-led imminent military action against Libya constitute a significant diplomatic victory for President Obama.

Only a week ago, no one really thought that the Western powers, the U.S., France, and Great Britain, would be able to get the Russians and Chinese to agree to anything when it came to Libya, let alone a yes-vote to impose a no-fly zone with its military consequences on that country. And although Russia and China in the end did not vote for military action, by abstaining they did not prevent one.

And by insisting on that a military intervention in Libya should be an international effort, and in this case actually led by the British and the French, Obama scored another diplomatic victory.

Obama, who campaigned for president in opposition to the Iraq and Afghan wars, now finds himself in a third war in the Middle East, albeit a limited one, without the prospect of American ground forces in Libya, as Obama has underlined.  

Does the Western intervention in the Libyan civil war come too late to rescue the rebels from final defeat? It is unclear. For those who argue that the U.S. administration moved too slowly, comparisons to previous cases in Bosnia or Iraq, prove those voices wrong. Obama has moved much quicker than any of his predecessors, in spite of his apparent deep reluctance to engage militarily in another Mideast conflict. The Arab League’s approval of a no-fly zone in Libya proved crucial in paving the way for Obama’s decision, but to a large extent, events on the ground in the Libya forced his hand. No one in the Administration wanted to risk a repeat of the Rwanda tragedy.

Now, the world is waiting for what will come next.

Pro and con in Washington on Libya

Although the natural disaster in Japan has dominated the American newspapers’ front pages this weekend, it is the civil war in Libya that primarily occupies the foreign policy deliberations of the Obama Administration, and an American decision seems fast approaching.

At Friday’s press conference, President Obama claimed “no option is off the table” and that the noose around Gaddafi’s neck is slowly tightening. He maintained that it is in America’s interest that Gaddafi goes, but he gave no indication of what steps his administration may take to make that happen.  

It is precisely this fact that is behind the comments about the president’s indecision on Libya. The voices are conservative, led by Senator John McCain, but include Democratic Senator John Kerry.  Some of these voices have little credibility, such as the man behind the Iraq war Paul Wolfowitz, as Maureen Dowd rightly points out in her Sunday column in The New York Times.

In fact, it is understandable that a president, who was elected largely because of his criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not keen to venture into a third war in the Middle East, if that is not absolutely necessary.  And, clearly, he does not seem to think so yet.  

Obama’s prudence is supported by a number of leading voices in the American foreign policy establishment. Representatives of the major think tanks, Brookings, Carnegie Endowment and the Council on Foreign Relations, such as Ken Pollack, Jessica Mathews and Richard Haass, all support the president’s apparent intention to weigh all options and carefully consider what can be done. They warn against a U.S. military action, including the much talked about “no-fly zone.”

These voices reflect the same caution that the military establishment has already expressed, led by Secretary Gates.  In Sunday’s Washington Post, another military leader joined in when the retired General and former NATO Commander Wesley Clark sharply warned America to engage in Libya. What are our purposes and objectives in Libya, Clark asked. We should have learned our lesson from our past many interventions, and we do not need to Libya to learn a new lesson about past mistakes.

At the same time, pressure on the Obama Administration to act is growing. The Arab League’s support for a “no-fly zone” and its call for the UN Security Council to endorse such action, as well as the League’s recognition of the Libyan rebels have all been welcomed by Washington, but  these decisions have also increased the pressure on Washington.   

Secretary Clinton’s travel on Monday for talks with the Libyan rebels and Tuesday’s NATO meeting can be decisive as to future U.S. operations.  It is clear that America wants to get rid of Gaddafi, but the question is how?

What is America to do in Libya?

Washington and the entire foreign policy/military establishment are wrestling with the question of what America should do in the ongoing revolution in Libya to help the revolutionaries overthrow Colonel Gaddafi and prevent a possible protracted civil war and a humanitarian disaster.

The present debate can be seen as an expression of frustration that there is really not very much that can be done – if America does not want to start a another war in the Middle East, of course.

U.S. warships have been ordered into the Mediterranean Sea and the newspapers and broadcast media are filled daily by reports of refugee flows into Tunisia and Egypt and the evacuation from the ports of Tripoli. Humanitarian assistance is the only thing, so far, that the Obama administration has been able to promise with certainty.  

About all other possible actions and scenarios, the debate is intense. It is here that the introduction of a “no-fly zone” over Libya has become something of the flavor of the day. But no one in the Administration, and least of all Defense Secretary Gates and the military leaders, seems to show any enthusiasm for this idea.

We must be clear about this, said Gates and the generals somberly this week, that measures to close the Libyan airspace begin with acts of war – air strikes against Libya’s air and missile bases. Do we really want another war in the Middle East, they seemed to ask.

So it’s necessary that we count to ten, slowly, before we start another war, writes Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times today about this debate and on the fallout of previous “no-fly zones” — in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo.