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.
2. What precisely is the endgame?
If we are not ready to declare an end to our military role after having saved the people of Benghazi and stopped Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks, when will the Commander-in-Chief deem the mission completed?
Obama told the American people in his speech that removing Qaddafi is not part of the coalition’s military mission. He contrasted his refusal to use military force to bring about regime change with the “road” the Bush administration went down in Iraq. Ironically, if Bush had not moved forcefully to take out Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi would not have been so willing to give up his nuclear arms program, which he did shortly after the 2003 Iraq invasion. Just imagine what might have happened if Qaddafi had ended up with nuclear weapons in his arsenal today.
In any case, we are in fact using our military resources for much more than just protecting civilians in imminent danger. We are also actively helping the rebels advance towards Tripoli and topple Qaddafi. We are taking sides in a civil war, which may be very protracted. When Secretary of Defense Gates was asked by ABC News on Sunday specifically about reports that some officials within the Pentagon believed the mission could last many months, Gates did nothing to dismiss that belief. “I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that,” he said.
The president did not level with the American people on how long we will be involved militarily in Libya. He did not promise to seek formal congressional authorization if we remain involved past the next few days, as George W. Bush did before undertaking the Afghan and Iraq wars. And Obama did not address where the money will come from to pay for his “humanitarian” war, except to say that our “international partners” will be sharing the cost.
3. Who exactly are we helping?
We can all agree that Qaddafi is an evil man with American blood on his hands, but that fact does not automatically mean the Libyan opposition is a force for democracy that will protect the “universal rights” that Obama says he is defending. Obama did not share with the American people anything about the opposition, including whether we can be sure that, if it prevails, it won’t turn on civilian Qaddafi supporters with the same ferocity as Qaddafi was prepared to unleash against them.
More alarmingly, Obama concealed from the American people some disturbing facts he undoubtedly knows about elements in the opposition that we are now supporting. This Telegraph headline says it all: “Libya: the West and al-Qaeda on the same side.”
As reported on March 17, 2011 by the Asian Tribune, a document prepared by the U.S. West Point Military Academy Combating Terrorism Center revealed that Libya sent more fighters to join Iraq’s Islamic militant insurgency and kill American soldiers in Iraq on a per-capita basis than any other Muslim country, including Saudi Arabia. Most of those fighters come from the very forces in eastern Libya that we are now helping and are considering arming.
The West Point report said:
Most of the Libyan recruits came from cities in North-East Libya, an area long known for jihadi-linked militancy. Libyan fighters were much more likely than other nationalities to be listed as suicide bombers (85% for Libyans, 56% for all others).
The commander of anti-Qaddafi rebels forces in Libya, Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, has confirmed the West Point report’s findings, admitting that among the ranks of those fighting against the Qaddafi government are Islamic militants who killed U.S. troops in Iraq. He added that “members of al-Qaeda are also good Muslims.” Hasidi, by the way, was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2002. Without any explanation to the American people, Obama has decided that his ill-defined mission in Libya is worth allying ourselves with opposition troops who have tried in the past to kill our soldiers and who are, in turn, aligned with our global terrorist enemy, al Qaeda.
Certainly, the Obama administration is not the first to find itself with strange bedfellows. The Reagan administration, for example, provided billions of dollars in arms to Afghanistan’s Islamic resistance against the Soviet Union, including to Osama bin Laden. The crucial difference, however, was that when Reagan acted in 1987, he did not have the benefit of hindsight. Al Qaeda had not emerged as a terrorist organization committed to killing Americans. Obama, on the other hand, went into Libya despite knowing (or at least he should have known) that we were helping al Qaeda allies, who had previously sent their forces to Iraq to kill American soldiers.
President Obama told the American people in his speech that “As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than keeping this country safe.” Yet, for the first time perhaps in our nation’s history, we have a Commander-in-Chief asking American soldiers to defend individuals who, not too long ago, tried to kill other American soldiers and who are allied with a sworn enemy of the United States. Of all the failures associated with the Libyan conflict, this is perhaps the most devastating.
Joseph Klein is the author of a recent book entitled Lethal Engagement: Barack Hussein Obama, the United Nations and Radical Islam.