Obama on Libya: The Doctrine Is Clear, but the Mission Isn’t

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Barack Obama’s speech on Libya on Monday night was a curious beast — both ambitious and cautious at once. The President surprised Washington by articulating a big idea about U.S. power. But he may have disappointed Americans by dancing around the challenge that remains in Libya.

Obama was clear enough, to be sure, about why he chose to intervene in Libya. With Muammar Gaddafi’s army outside Benghazi, Obama said, the Libyan leader was prepared to commit “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” That would have been not just a moral abomination, the President argued, but also a strategic calamity that could have sent droves of refugees into Egypt and Tunisia, straining those countries’ fragile transitions; it would also have sent a message to other tyrants that “violence is the best strategy to cling to power.” Moreover, Obama said that to allow Gaddafi to defy the U.N. would be “crippling [to] its future credibility.”

This was a fulsome explanation, though there’s plenty to critique: the U.N. took substantive action in Libya only at Washington’s strong urging; Obama reversed the causality here. It’s not evident how a wave of refugees would spoil the political transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. And the U.S. is currently propping up another Middle East ruler who has violently repressed protests.

But so what? Those points were largely window dressing for Obama’s grander idea about U.S. power abroad. Conservatives have accused Obama of doubting whether the U.S. has a special, “exceptional” role in the world. But on Monday night, Obama put the lie to that charge. “For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom,” Obama said. To allow a slaughter in Benghazi would have been to “brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and … would have been a betrayal of who we are.” As Chris Cillizza notes, this was a powerful appeal to U.S. pride and patriotism. At the same time, Obama explained that the Libya intervention isn’t a license to fight evil anywhere and everywhere: “We must always measure our interests against the need for action,” he said. In Libya, the U.S. had the “unique ability” to act — thanks to our military power and the international support behind it.

Such talk will please liberal interventionists and conservative hawks alike. (Yes, John McCain approved the speech.) But for many Americans, some basic questions may remain unanswered. Obama assured the public that the U.S. is taking on a supporting role in NATO operations (though the AP is skeptical) and won’t try to remove Gaddafi by force. “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” Obama said, adding that “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.”

But then what, exactly, are the options in Libya? Obama wants Gaddafi to leave power and said that “until [Gaddafi] does, Libya remains dangerous.” Yet he was vague about the urgency of this outcome and what he’s willing to do to achieve it. Would Obama, for instance, consider supplying arms to the Libyan rebels (in possible violation of a U.N. arms embargo)? If not arms, how about financing? And let’s say a stalemate develops between Gaddafi and the rebels — would we be willing to recognize a separate state in the east? (The Arab League might be rather less enthusiastic about that.) And just who are the rebels, and what do they believe? Does Obama have a clear sense of those things? He didn’t offer answers to those questions on Monday night.

Finally, what about Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule“? Imagine that Gaddafi is toppled and his army and security forces are crushed or melt away. Perhaps tribal warfare rages over the country’s oil wealth. Maybe al-Qaeda leaps to exploit and aggravate the instability. Violent anarchy could break out across the country. Sound familiar? That’s what happened in Iraq. We don’t need to invade Libya to see an Iraq-like outcome. And in Libya, the result could be a loss of life on a scale potentially greater than the massacre we likely averted in Benghazi. Having facilitated a change in regime, could the U.S. really stand by and watch that happen?

Obviously, it’s too much to expect a President to address every worst-case scenario that could result from his policies. And it’s entirely possible that Gaddafi will soon be on a Lear jet to some friendly African nation to live out his life in luxurious exile. Moreover, the White House says that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will offer more detail about the Libya endgame during public remarks in London on Tuesday.

But the fact remains that Obama has not spoken for the last time about Libya. He may have clarified his views on the important question of when and where the U.S. will use force to defend its interests and values. However, his views about what obligations the U.S. may have in the conflict’s aftermath remain as murky as ever.