It is the responsibility of the president of the United States to clearly explain to the American people the vital national interests at stake when he decides to risk American blood and treasure in a war. He also must define the war’s mission and provide an honest appraisal of how long the mission may take to succeed. And, if at all possible, the president should provide this explanation to the American people before he commits the nation to a war of choice.
President Obama’s address to the nation Monday night to explain the rationale and scope of what his administration calls “kinetic military activity” did not come close to fulfilling his responsibility. After waiting more than a month after the crisis in Libya first erupted (and nine days after U.S. military action began under the banner of international humanitarianism) to address the American people, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president could not bring himself to use the obvious word that best describes what he decided to launch: a “war.” Instead, he described it as an “international effort” to prevent a massacre of civilians at the hands of Col. Moammar Qaddafi.
In his speech, Obama stressed the limited scope of U.S. involvement from this point on, now that NATO will be assuming command from the U.S. military to enforce the arms embargo, no fly zone, and civilian protection responsibilities. He repeated his promise, which he may have already broken, that there will be no U.S. ground troops in Libya. U.S. special ops, military intelligence and rescue forces are reportedly already on the ground, contrary to Obama’s representation.
Obama praised American leadership in achieving international consensus to go forward with military action, evidenced by the United Nations Security Council’s authorization of military action following the Arab League’s urgent request for a no-fly zone. But he made only the briefest mention of consulting with Congress before he directed the U.S. military to enter a third theater of war in the Muslim world. In fact, he mentioned Congress only once in his entire speech. He referred to the United Nations or the “international community” seven times.
Obama’s speech to the nation should have provided sharp clarity to the American people about why we are fighting in Libya, who we are supporting militarily against Qaddafi, and when we plan to exit completely. Instead, the speech added to the confusion with deliberate ambiguities and omissions of material facts, if not outright untruths.
At a minimum, President Obama owed the nation complete and truthful answers to three key questions, which he did not provide in his speech:
1. What U.S. interests are at stake in Libya that are worth fighting for, and what are the criteria for determining whether U.S. military forces should enter a war for humanitarian purposes?
President Obama’s own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, admitted on the Sunday talk show circuit that the Libyan conflict “was not a vital national interest to the United States,” which raises the question of what we are really trying to accomplish there.
Obama tried to provide the answer in his speech by declaring:
We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973. We struck regime forces approaching Benghazi to save that city and the people within it. We hit Gaddafi’s troops in neighboring Ajdabiya, allowing the opposition to drive them out. We hit his air defenses, which paved the way for a No Fly Zone. We targeted tanks and military assets that had been choking off towns and cities and we cut off much of their source of supply. And tonight, I can report that we have stopped Gaddafi’s deadly advance.
Taking the president’s words at face value, if humanitarian considerations drove Obama’s decision to use force in Libya, why didn’t he move earlier when more lives could have been saved and the operation would have been much simpler to accomplish? Qaddafi was then on the ropes, but gained momentum when he saw that the international community was not going to come to the rebels’ aid immediately.
Now that, in Obama’s own words, we have stopped the Libyan dictator’s advance and prevented an imminent massacre from taking place, haven’t we clearly accomplished the president’s stated humanitarian goal?
If so, we no longer need to be actively involved in continuing to enforce the no-fly zone that we helped set up. The European and Arab League countries that pushed us into this war in the first place are perfectly capable of taking over that role completely. To say, as the president emphasized in his speech, that NATO has assumed command from the United States military is a fig leaf at best. NATO relies largely on United States military resources to carry out its military missions.
Moreover, Obama’s speech skirted the brutality taking place against civilians today in other countries such as Syria, and why we should not apply the same standard we used in Libya to protect them. In addition to rising humanitarian concerns, the U.S. has a much stronger strategic interest in Syria than in Libya because of Syria’s close relationship with Iran.