Obama fills in the blanks, but Libya is still a worry

Published 6:09 pm Friday, April 1, 2011

WASHINGTON – In his speech Monday night to a public thoroughly, and understandably, befuddled about U.S. policy in Libya, President Obama began to fill in some important blanks.

The White House would dispute this assessment, but Obama’s remarks came unfortunately late. Rallying the public behind “kinetic military action,” my favorite new phrase, requires explanations sooner rather than later. This is especially true when it is a kinetic action of choice, not necessity; in the nervous aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan; and in the relentless context of a 24/7 news cycle.

And especially when the run-up to action has been so herky-jerky, with clashing messages about the wisdom and feasibility of a no-fly zone and a confusing bifurcation of means and ends. It is U.S. policy that Moammar Gaddafi should – indeed, must – go, but that is not the stated aim of the military action.

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As disjointed as it sounds, this is a defensible position. The price of assembling an international coalition was to rule out removing Gaddafi by force, and the president is right to reject committing ground troops to such a mission. Cross your fingers – this approach might even work.

But presidential leadership entails more than expecting a public bombarded with news from the Mideast to intuit nuances of policy there. A new Pew poll found that just 39 percent of Americans think the United States has a clear goal in Libya. I was surprised the number was that high.

Still, the timing of Obama’s address turned out to be fortuitous in the sense that the president was able to offer his version of mission accomplished: massacre averted, rebels resurgent, the United States transferring command to NATO.

So what about those blanks? Based on the president’s speech and a White House briefing beforehand, here’s my assessment, in descending order of Obama’s artistry in filling them in.

Why action was justified. Obama was at his strongest in outlining why intervention made sense. “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are,” he said.

The key words: under such circumstances. Not every humanitarian crisis justifies U.S. intervention, Obama argued, but Libya represented a confluence of factors tipping the balance in that favor: the capacity to prevent imminent harm with little risk to U.S. forces; willing international partners, including Arab nations; negative spillover effects of inaction, including encouraging other dictators to conclude that repression is the best strategy.

Why is this country different from all other countries – or not? I came away from the briefing and the speech concluding that the White House sees Libya more as a one-off episode than the first of a series of new military entanglements. This was Obama’s Goldilocks moment: Conditions for acting were just right. Other places might be too hot and unstable (think of al-Qaeda in Yemen without President Ali Abdullah Saleh) or too central and stable (think of the U.S. naval presence and Saudi interests in Bahrain) to intervene. The big open question now is how Syria fits into this rubric.

What comes next? This is where the president, partly by necessity, was least clear. First, what happens if Gaddafi doesn’t leave, and what is the United States willing to do to ensure his departure? Second, what happens if/when Gaddafi does go, and what is the United States doing to ensure a new Libyan government that will not be hostile to American interests?

The administration bets it can so “deeply isolate” Gaddafi, as deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough put it, that he will ultimately have to leave. Degrading his military, cutting off his cash, and meanwhile helping grow a viable alternative, they hope, will do the trick. Is the administration willing to recognize the opposition? “At the moment, we are not,” McDonough said. Will it arm the rebels? “I didn’t say we had or hadn’t,” McDonough said. If the administration has a Plan B for what happens if Gaddafi defies its predictions and hangs on, I didn’t hear it – and, as the president said, until he goes, “Libya will remain dangerous.”

Even afterward, as the president was careful to point out, Libya will be no picnic. There is no Libyan Vaclav Havel in the wings. Instead, White House officials talk bravely of enlisting shopkeepers in Tripoli.

I hope they’re right. I felt better about the enterprise Tuesday morning than I did a day earlier. Better, but still queasy about how it all ends.