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President Obama faced a difficult task on Monday night as he delivered his much-belated address on the war in Libya: to convince not only a skeptical nation that the intervention is warranted, but also his own secretary of defense, who caused a panic in the administration over the weekend when he announced that Libya did not constitute a “vital interest” for the United States.
The president was at his most persuasive in arguing that the intervention was justified on humanitarian grounds. Muammar Qaddafi had vowed that he would show “no mercy” to his own people and, as Obama noted, there were compelling reasons to believe him. Forces loyal to Qaddafi had shelled rebel towns and cities, while “military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assault from the air.” Given the dictator’s history of brutality, his professed bloodlust and the imminent cutoff in food and fuel to rebel-held cities made a mass slaughter a real possibility, one that the bombing campaign has at least for now forestalled.
Beyond the war’s strictly humanitarian component, however, the president’s address raised more questions than it answered. What, for instance, were America’s military objectives in Libya and how would they be achieved? The president’s answers were as confused as those offered by his surrogates in recent days. Thus, he stressed that the objective was primarily to provide humanitarian aid to the Libyan people and to assist NATO’s mission of maintaining a No Fly Zone to protect civilians. But he did not explain how such theoretically narrow aims could be reconciled with NATO’s actual mission, which has included airstrikes on Qaddafi’s forces around cities like Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, where those forces not only pose no threat to civilians but also reportedly enjoy broad local support.
And what of Qaddafi himself? U.S. policy has been incoherent in this regard: notionally committed to his ouster yet unwilling to see it through. The president offered little clarity. He stressed several times that Qaddafi would have to go, explaining that “there is no question that Libya – and the world – will be better off with Gaddafi out of power,” and stressing that he had “embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means.” Yet he did not elaborate why measures like political isolation and economic pressure could be expected to work on a pariah regime that reportedly has hoarded billions in cash in order to weather a crisis just like the one it currently faces. Moreover, having committed the United States to regime change in Libya, could the administration really accept an outcome that saw Qaddafi remain in power, a symbol of defiance to the American power and a living testament to the failure of the president’s leadership? If the president has taken a long term view of the conflict and its consequences, his speech showed little evidence of it.
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