The Libyan Muddle

Obama’s confused speech sheds little light on America’s incoherent intervention.

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.

Obama instead chose to focus on quixotic themes like democracy and the “aspirations of the Libyan people.” But on this issue as in so many others in the Libyan war, the devil is in the details. It would be heartening to think that Qaddafi’s opponents are Western-style democrats-in-waiting, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, a Libyan rebel leader, recently revealed that the ranks of the rebels include jihadists who fought American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is consistent with the findings of American military researchers that Libyans, many with ties to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIGF) that has roots in the breakaway parts of eastern Libya, made up the second-largest cohort of foreign fighters in Iraq, after Saudi Arabia. The military's West Point academy reports that while the LIFG is not officially affiliated with al-Qaeda, the two organizations share an “increasingly co-operative relationship.” Is it the “aspirations” of such allies that the U.S. is in Libya to defend?

A notable allergy to specifics aside, the address symbolized the president’s deep ambivalence about the use of American military power. In a version of Wilsonianism on steroids, he sought to cast the war as an idealistic intervention based on deep moral principle, at one point suggesting that the United States was fighting to give Libyans “freedom from fear.” (It is apparently not enough for the United States to make the world safe for democracy. We must make it safe from fear, as well.) Elsewhere in his remarks, the president invoked cold considerations of “national interest” related to an immigration crisis from the war and a spillover of regional instability to Egypt and Tunisia. Which was the real reason for America’s involvement? The president himself didn’t seem sure.

One point, at least, the president was clear: Libya was a multilateral war. Almost apologetically, he stressed that “the United States has not acted alone. Instead, we have been joined by a strong and growing coalition.” But this emphasis was a mistake. That is not only because the so-called international community backing the war has already collapsed, with the Arab League now airing doubts about the conflict and European powers like Germany refusing to take part at all, but because this multilateralism was overhyped to begin with. As Foreign Policy points out, the war’s coalition is “smaller than any major multilateral operation since the end of the Cold War.” The supposedly unilateral 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Obama again criticized last night, was backed by 40 countries, while only 15 have backed the Libyan mission.

More important, the fig leaf of multilateralism cannot disguise a muddled military policy. Lacking a clear sense of purpose and military intent, the president repeatedly has tried to justify the conduct of the war rather than its outcome. But it’s the latter that most matters to the American public. And if the president’s speech last night is the most clarity that the country will receive about the war underway in Libya, it won’t be long before it joins his defense secretary in judging it far from a vital national interest.