We again find ourselves at war with a Middle Eastern dictator. How did it get here? Last month, the Libyan people rebelled against their 42-year oppressor, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. The rebels liberated most of their country and were on the verge of overthrowing their tyrant; all that was needed was a bit of air support for the final push into the capital Tripoli. But we waited more than a month for France, Britain, the UN, and the Arab League to lead. In that time, Gaddafi used his air force to crush the uprising, reclaim the liberated territory, and encircle the rebels in the city of Benghazi.
So in the eleventh hour we have decided to bomb Libya.
What is the mission? What are our objectives? The public is in the dark. Barely anyone has mentioned how Congress hasn’t debated or authorized any of this. Secretary of State Clinton is reportedly furious with the administration’s dithering. Vice President Biden, the purported foreign policy expert, is missing in action. And President Obama is away touring South America. The whole scene is very strange and a bit surreal. We have stumbled into war and it feels as though the intervention is both belated and haphazardly rushed at the same time. I can’t recall anything quite like this.
There is no doubt Muammar Gaddafi should go. He has for decades killed Americans and brutalized millions. His regime has 1) repeatedly been aggressive against neighbors; 2) sheltered internationally wanted terrorists; 3) violated non-proliferation treaties and pursued illicit unconventional weapons; 4) committed gross human rights violations on a massive scale — the four reasons, according to international law, that a state forfeits its sovereignty. Gaddafi’s downfall would be a deliverance.
Furthermore, the issue is not so much about justifying our present actions by citing Gaddafi’s past actions, but rather acknowledging the fact that, should Gaddafi survive this confrontation with the West, he will emerge an international outlaw as emboldened as ever. Libya will become chief global pariah — the North Korea of North Africa.
But overthrowing Gaddafi does not seem to be the objective. It’s unclear. At the beginning of the month, weeks before our intervention, President Obama declared Gaddafi must step down. Now that we have intervened, Obama has said, “We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.” Well, protection from whom? Gaddafi, of course. The war strategy seems an inherent contradiction.
Hours after bombing Gaddafi’s compound the Pentagon released a statement saying we didn’t really mean it. “At this particular point, I can guarantee that he’s not on a targeting list,” Vice Admiral Bill Gortney said of Gaddafi. So we’re not going to kill Gaddafi? Gortney’s response: “If he happens to be in a place — if he’s inspecting a surface-to-air missile site, [and] we don’t have any idea that he’s there or not — then, yeah.” Secretary of Defense Gates has called the idea of targeting Gaddafi “unwise.” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the war is “not about seeing [Gaddafi go]” but “about supporting the United Nations resolution which talked about eliminating his ability to kill his own people.” This comes weeks after the national intelligence director predicted Gaddafi’s victory over the rebels.
So we are going after Gaddafi’s residences but not Gaddafi himself. This whole thing is bizarre.
Note to the administration: less spokesmen, more clarity. President Obama needs to come back from South America and address the nation. He needs to explain to the country why it is we are attacking Libya, what our objectives are, and all the rest of it. The administration seems understandably concerned about the possibility of a prolonged, protracted war. But one does not avoid such an outcome by ignoring it. Such a possibility is all the more reason to be articulate and clear about what the mission is. Therefore, once the servicemen of the U.S. military accomplish it — which they will — we can be assured that we achieved what we set out to do.
President Obama has said there will be no U.S. ground troops in the operation, the cost of which topped $100 million after the first day. Should Obama seek to assuage the worries of a cash-stripped, war-weary American public, he merely needs to say that there will be no U.S. occupation of Libya; no decade-long nation-building effort. But such an announcement would not preclude the aim of overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi. Now that we’re in it, we ought to stay in it until Gaddafi is removed from power. We should watch the chips fall where they may and do business with whoever assumes control of the government. We ought to avoid mission-creep.
George W. Bush spent more than a year trying to justify the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Congress authorized the Iraq mission and listed 23 justifications for doing so. With Libya, everything’s much murkier. We have seen President Obama, cool and detached, “vote present” before. There was the BP oil spill (“I can’t suck it up with a straw”). There were the democratic uprisings in Iran (he was cooking with Bobby Flay). Will objective minds soon contrast Obama’s handling of the recent Japanese tsunami with Bush’s handling of the 2004 South Asian tsunami?
We’ve seen President Obama prioritize NCAA brackets over the budget, high-speed Internet over the debt, beer summits over entitlement reform, health insurance over unemployment, and golf over nearly everything. Even on issues where Obama adopts the position of his critics — Afghanistan, for instance — one never gets the feeling his heart is in it. He rarely addresses the nation about Afghanistan; he doesn’t seem to have a passionate opinion on the matter.
And so this seems the case with Libya, as well. Our ambivalent leadership has gotten the nation into another war. Should Gaddafi cling to power, Libya will rejoin the ranks of Iran, Syria, and North Korea — the most hostile states in the world.