If the president had hoped last night’s speech would quash claims that the purpose and objective of our intervention in Libya was unclear, he probably shouldn’t unfold a paper or open his laptop this morning. The pundits—left, right, and in between—are pretty damningly unanimous: what little was clear before President Obama took the lectern remains clear; what was unclear is as vague and hazy as ever. Perhaps even hazier.
John Dickerson of Slate perhaps best sums up the near-universal consensus early in his column today:
Obama started with a clear mission statement. He promised to explain “what we have done, what we plan to do, and why this matters to us.” He was very strong on Items 1 and 3 but got fuzzy on Item No. 2.
As the pundits see it, the president was effective in explaining why he felt compelled to enter into what many see as a basic civil war—Qaddafi was promising to kill an extraordinary number of people and the U.S. had the expertise to intervene, at least delaying that bloodshed, with international backing and a coalition of behind it. Where the president failed, say most, was in explaining two things: the ultimate goal of the mission in Libya and why he chose to intervene there and not in other countries where similar unrest is leading to similar violence.
The pundits have a point.
You could almost see the mental knots being tied as the president tried to explain why intervening in Libya made more sense than intervening in other places:
It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.
If those same chips fall into place in the next month around action in Yemen—the threat of mass violence, the support of Arab countries, and a plea from the Yemeni people—would intervention there then be justified?
Similarly, the in-the-air endgame—are we after a no-fly-zone or regime change?—was made no clearer.
Of course, there is no question that Libya—and the world—would be better off with Qaddafi out of power. 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.
The task that I assigned our forces—to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a no-fly zone—carries with it a U.N. mandate and international support. It’s also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do. If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.
To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices 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.