Addressing Libya

March 28, 2011

Tonight, President Obama will address the nation on the military action in Libya, in response to important questions about goals, end-states and the U.S. role. Two key questions have been answered in recent days:  the effective handoff to NATO command and growing Arab state participation show how the U.S. can lead by letting others out in front. And the humanitarian situation and response of Libyan civilians underlines the mission’s initial success. 

As the president speaks, nation looks for goals, rationale and end-state. The president summed up his initial rationale during his weekly radio address: “As Commander in Chief, I face no greater decision than sending our military men and women into harm’s way. And the United States should not-and cannot-intervene every time there’s a crisis somewhere in the world. But I firmly believe that when innocent people are being brutalized; when someone like Qaddafi threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region; and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives-then it’s in our national interest to act. And it’s our responsibility. This is one of those times.”

Now it is up to the administration to spell out the path to an end-game in Libya. This weekend on Face the Nation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that we don’t yet know how things will end. Even as rebel forces claim to have taken control of Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown, the intentions and interests of the rebels are still unclear. When asked if the U.S. would accept a partitioned Libya, Secretary Clinton answered, “I think it’s too soon to predict that. I mean one of the reasons why we are forming a political contact group in London this coming week is because we want to get a unified political approach just as we have forged a unified military approach.” Secretary Clinton also noted that the U.S. had not yet decided if it would arm the rebels. “There’s been no decision about that. We are in contact with the rebels. I’ve met with one of the leaders. We have ongoing discussions with them.” The political component presents several challenges going forward, because as Laura Rozen wrote last week, “the rebels are largely unknown to the American government, despite initial tentative meetings such as Clinton’s and some meetings held by U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz with opposition representatives.” When asked how long the no-fly zone would likely be in place, Secretary Gates responded, “I don’t think anyone has any idea.”  [AP, 3/28/11. President Obama, 3/26/11. Secretary Clinton, 3/27/11. Laura Rozen, 3/22/11. Secretary Gates, 3/27/11]

“A president who can make multilateralism work.” The intervention has scored significant humanitarian successes and – as was pledged – been handed from U.S. to NATO leadership, with growing Arab involvement. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement yesterday, “NATO Allies have decided to take on the whole military operation in Libya under the United Nations Security Council Resolution. Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Gaddafi regime. NATO will implement all aspects of the UN Resolution. Nothing more, nothing less.”  Reuters explains what the transfer means: “NATO agreed on Sunday to take over all operations in Libya, putting the 28-nation alliance in charge of air strikes that have targeted Muammar Gaddafi’s military infrastructure, as well as a no-fly zone and an arms embargo.” In addition, al Jazeera reports that, “Turkey has said it will help with distributing humanitarian aid to Libya and has suggested it could play a part in mediating between rebels and the government of Muammar Gaddafi. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s prime minister, said Turkey would take over the running of Benghazi airport to take responsibility for distributing humanitarian aid from the rebel-held eastern city.”

This response remains unprecedented in speed and scope of a truly global response to a security and humanitarian crisis. Duke Professor and former State Department adviser Bruce Jentleson  told the New York Times’ John Harwood, “If this succeeds… he [President Obama] will have demonstrated he’s a president who can make multilateralism work, and use American power in ways that are effective for a 21st-century world.” Bruce Jones of the Brookings Institution further explains the important role of the multilateral institutions: “By any credible historical standard, the international system’s actions to date on Libya have been swift and encompassing. On 26 February the Security Council adopted Resolution 1970 imposing an arms embargo and wide-ranging sanctions and referring Libya to the International Criminal Court. This happened with unprecedented speed… More impressive was the fact that the UN Security Council invoked the principle of the responsibility to protect… At the same time, the international humanitarian system has put in place a substantial operation to respond to the mounting plight of refugees and displaced persons, particularly in the east.  The singular event of the last three weeks, though, was not the UN’s, it was the Arab League’s vote to call for the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya… The Arab League vote did two things: it removed an excuse from those who didn’t want to act; and it eased the administration’s valid concerns that U.S.-led or western action in Libya would taint the politics of the broader Arab uprising, complicating an already enormous challenge in the region. [Barack Obama, 3/26/11. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, 3/27/11.

Reuters, 3/28/11. Al Jazeera, 3/28/11. Bruce Jentleson via NY Times, 3/27/11. Bruce Jones, 3/18/11]

After tonight:  a choice between a serious debate over goals and end-states, or expedient flip-flops and calls for yet more invasions.  Views on the intervention do not break down along partisan lines, and it is clear that many Americans are waiting to hear more from the president about goals and outcomes in Libya.  Roll Call notes the divergent opinion among Tea Party-affiliated freshmen, which “has reflected the conflicted reaction of Congress as a whole.”

Les Gelb predicts:  “Obama will explain his thinking about U.S. interests in Libya. He will say we have no ‘vital interests,’ and he is correct. Vital interests would call for Americans going to war to achieve their aims. But he will go on to say that Washington does have ‘interests,’ essentially humanitarian ones, to save lives and protect innocent civilians. He is absolutely right about this, too. Getting rid of Gaddafi is important, but not vital, and certainly doesn’t call for a U.S. invasion. This sensible lay down will surely disappoint the millenarians who see Libya as the keystone to the future of democracy in the Mideast and North Africa. There’s no arguing with these geniuses who have gotten America into one war after another where America’s vital interests were not engaged.” 

In recent days we have heard little thoughtful consideration and won’t find it from some of the most prominent voices:

Newt Gingrich’s “full flop” on Libya. The Christian Science Monitor reports, “On March 7, [Gingrich] was asked by Greta Van Susteren of Fox News what he would do about Muammar Qaddafi attacking his opponents in Libya. ‘Exercise a no-fly zone this evening,’ he replied. ‘All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening… All we have to do is suppress his air force, which we could do in minutes.’ But on March 23, he told Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show: ‘I would not have intervened…. I would not have used American and European forces, bombing Arabs and that country.’

“‘Is this anti-Obama pandering or just a big misunderstanding?’ asked the anonymous AllahPundit at the conservative blog site Hot Air. A more neutral observer – the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact.com – applying its ‘Truth-O-Meter,’ awarded Gingrich a ‘Full Flop.’ Among other things, PolitiFact noted, Gingrich didn’t use his Facebook page to try and clear things up until he began taking heat.” [Newt Gingrich via the CS Monitor, 3/27/11]

John Bolton calls for war with Iran. Bolton recently told ThinkProgress, “As we focus on Libya or Egypt or other headlines of the day, we shouldn’t lose sight that the great conflict, the great risk is an expansive Iran.” But as former CENTCOM Commander General Anthony Zinni has said, “The problem with the strike is thinking through the consequences of Iranian reaction…You can see all these reactions that are problematic in so many ways. Economic impact, national security impact — it will drag us into a conflict.  I think anybody that believes that it would be a clean strike and it would be over and there would be no reaction is foolish.” [John Bolton via Think Progress, 3/26/11. Anthony Zinni, 8/04/09]

And Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) calls for war with Syria. Speaking Sunday, Lieberman said, “If [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad does what Qadhafi was doing, which is to threaten to go house to house and kill anybody who’s not on his side, there’s a precedent now that the world community has set in Libya, and it’s the right one… We’re not going to stand by and allow this Assad to slaughter his people like his father did years ago.” [Joe Lieberman, 3/27/11]

[Les Gelb, Daily Beast, 3/28/11. Roll Call, 3/28/11]

What We’re Reading

Syria’s emergency law, which has been in place nearly 50 years, is in the process of being lifted.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has scrapped an offer to step down by year’s end as militants, taking advantage of the deteriorating security, seized another town in the south of the country.

Highly radioactive water has been found outside one of the reactor buildings at Fukushima nuclear plant for the first time, raising fears about radiation seeping into the surrounding environment.

Three Taliban suicide bombers shot their way into a road construction company in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, then detonated a truck full of explosives, killing 23 and wounding around 60.

The internationally recognized president of Ivory Coast rejected the latest African Union envoy selected to help resolve the nation’s tense political standoff.

Colombian armed forces killed 15 FARC guerrillas in the western province of Cauca.

Polish prosecutors investigating a secret CIA prison in Poland want the United States to question two Guantanamo Bay prisoners who allege they were held and abused at the site.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats suffered significant political blows following two state elections which saw the Green Party make dramatic gains. The polls have been widely viewed as a referendum on nuclear energy.

Canada’s Conservative government collapsed when opposition parties voted it in contempt of Parliament, accusing it of failing to disclose accurate cost figures for key programs.

Commentary of the Day

James Traub explains the various situations that could arise in Libya, should the rebels prevail against Qaddafi, and what role the United States and the international community could – and should-play.

Johnathan Steele says that talks with the Taliban may be closer than many realize.

Simon Tisdall points out how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is running out of options in stifling protests.

 

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