Obama's Libya Speech Will Bring Belated Clarity on His Policyby Leslie H. Gelb
On Monday, President Obama is finally getting around to explaining exactly what he’s doing in Libya, pulling together all the Libyan issues by the numbers—the way he should have from Day 1, before he and his team muddied the waters with daily policy updates. The speech, according to officials, won’t commit to removing Col. Muammar Gaddafi by military force, nor will it sketch how Washington will transform the roiling Mideast into a democratic paradise. So most big thinkers in Washington won’t be happy with it. But for the most part, the speech should satisfy those who are searching for a common sense and sustainable U.S. foreign policy.
Let’s go through this step by step, the way Obama should have from the beginning. Tunisia and Egypt enjoyed popular uprisings, resulting in mostly peaceful changes in government. Another erupted in Libya, and Gaddafi promised to massacre the rebels. Given his track record of atrocities, this had to be believed. The situation became a potential humanitarian crisis. In most cases, the international community does nothing but blow smoke in such situations. In this one, several factors made action beyond economic sanctions and scolding possible: Everyone hated Gaddafi, and some military mission seemed doable at low cost. Then, much to everyone’s surprise, the Arab League called for a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi from using airpower to decimate his opponents. Then, also surprisingly, Russia and China didn’t veto a U.N. resolution calling for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.
In all these international authorizations, the sole goal was to protect people and prevent a humanitarian calamity. None of these resolutions in any way suggested action beyond silencing Gaddafi’s air force, though there was implicit recognition that air power would have to be used to truly make the population safe.
Did almost all of these nations want to get rid of Gaddafi? Yes. But Obama stumbled early on when he proclaimed “Gaddafi must go.” He later explained that this was simply a matter of “U.S. national policy,” and not coalition or Arab League policy. But the damage was done, and the confusion began. Obama’s words went far, too far, to committing the United States to removing Gaddafi, to putting U.S. prestige and credibility on the line. It was a mistake, all too typical of the Obama style to speak first and think smarter later. He will reaffirm this larger goal in his talk Monday, but will clarify that it is not part of the coalition mission, nor will Washington pursue the goal by means of military force. This will make hardliners very, very unhappy. But if Obama explains it deftly, most Americans will understand and sympathize with the need not to involve their nation in yet another land war. And make no mistake, it would take another land war to accomplish that goal—unless we plain luck out.
In the speech, Obama will go on to say that the United States has just about completed its main and initial mission in Libya: to destroy Gaddafi’s air-defense systems, his capacity to use his jets against the rebels, and to degrade Libyan ground forces. Others in the coalition will now take on the job of maintaining that state of affairs. Obviously, U.S. commanders and command and control capabilities will be there to oversee and help. But the principal task of protecting the people will fall to coalition partners.
Now, from my standpoint, this should have been done from Day 1. The Arab League, the French, and the British screamed loudest to do something—and truth be told, they were in a position by themselves to protect the rebels. In particular, the Arabs and especially the Egyptians should not have been left off the hook. Only the U.A.E. and Qatar are doing a damn thing. Even the Canadians, Norwegians, and the Danes are doing more to help now than the French and the Italians. Our "partners” present and future need to be held to much tougher account. As for the American role in these situations, it should be mostly in support—with intelligence, command and control, and logistics. Americans forces should do more only when they alone can do the job and do it in time. That’s all spilt milk for now. But next time…
Last but not least, Obama will explain his thinking about U.S. interests in Libya. He will say we have no “vital interests,” and he is correct. Vital interests would call for Americans going to war to achieve their aims. But he will go on to say that Washington does have “interests,” essentially humanitarian ones, to save lives and protect innocent civilians. He is absolutely right about this, too. Getting rid of Gaddafi is important, but not vital, and certainly doesn’t call for a U.S. invasion.
This sensible lay down will surely disappoint the millenarians who see Libya as the keystone to the future of democracy in the Mideast and North Africa. There’s no arguing with these geniuses who have gotten America into one war after another where America’s vital interests were not engaged. They just don’t understand that Saudi, Syrian, Jordanian, Kuwaiti, and other Arab leaders will do what they’re going to do regardless of what the United States and others do in Libya. To them all, Libya is small potatoes. If the Saudi king feels the need to use force against his own people, he'll do precisely that.
Promotion of democracy along with protection of U.S. security and economic interests are Washington’s principal tasks in the region. Privately and firmly, the Obama team should be pressing and helping America’s many non-democratic allies in the region to transition toward democratic institutions—to free press, honest judicial systems, political parties at local levels and above, etc. Right now, the Obama draft doesn’t include this critical, broader subject and how to handle it. He should add this as the kicker.
Contrary to what the legions of foreign-policy experts and pundits say, the United States does not have the power to “shape” the future Mideast region. That is stuff and nonsense for today and even yesterday. But have no doubt—just go there—and you will see that the United States still possesses influence far beyond any other state or group of states. And if what American leaders say makes good common sense, if it speaks to the interests of both friendly leaders as well as the Arab people, we will get a good hearing.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.