Rarely has a president sounded so pleased with himself in making a confused case for an ambiguous war. President Obama contrasted himself with both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in his speech explaining his Libyan intervention on Monday night, as if after the struggles of the last two decades the United States has finally nailed the art of balancing its interests and values in a slippery world full of shades of gray.
Not surprisingly, over the last two weeks President Obama has proven himself a highly ambivalent warrior. Bizarrely, he says he’s putting the U.S. military at the service of the UN’s mission in Libya (protection of the population) rather than at the service of his own goal as president of the United States (the ouster of Qaddafi). We have high tolerance for diplomatic mumbo-jumbo to win allied support and soothe political sensibilities, so long as we don’t fool ourselves that there’s any substitute for American leadership and don’t let form dictate substance. President Obama at times seems dismayingly sincere in believing that in the ramshackle Libyan coalition he’s forged an entirely different mode for America’s engagement in the world.
This is silly, and ultimately pernicious. The United States military is not an armed department of the United Nations, nor is it meant to be sent willy-nilly around the world pre-empting atrocities, as it would be under modish theories of the “responsibility to protect.” The most important reason to move in Libya was to preserve the rebellion toward the end of weakening Qaddafi and ultimately toppling him. He’s proven himself a menace to us, to the region, and to his people. We believe in redemption, but not in the case of a miserable little dictator whose conversion in recent years to more reasonable behavior was clearly driven by fear of George W. Bush. Should he survive this campaign, he may well be emboldened, and he’s shown his capacity for bloody acts of revenge in the past. We should be actively seeking the end of his regime.
That means continuing to destroy as much of his military on the ground as rapidly as possible. It means attacking his command-and-control operations in the hopes that a lucky strike kills him. And it means reaching out through every possible diplomatic avenue to offer him a way out in the form of a one-way ticket to some place like Venezuela. The only force available on the ground to move on Tripoli is the rebels from the east. We shouldn’t romanticize them. Not only are they highly disorganized, they will surely commit abuses of their own as soon as they have the upper hand, and they may have limited appeal in the west of the country. As can be expected in such a society, some of the fighters are jihadis who in different circumstances we’d be seeking to kill. Their chief virtue is that they are anti-Qaddafi.
But we should be gaining as much knowledge of the particular players on the ground as possible so we aren’t flying so blind. Meanwhile, we should be engaging with the Transitional National Council in Benghazi and helping it build its capacities, so it can better govern the areas it controls and be better prepared to govern — or share in governing — the country in the event of Qaddafi’s fall. An ideal outcome would be a post-Qaddafi government of national unity negotiated between elements of the current government and the Transitional National Council. But we should have realistic expectations for post-Qaddafi Libya. It is a society much better primed for an insurgency and bitter division than for a functioning democracy. Since we are not going to send ground forces to police Libya if Qaddafi falls, have done no post-war planning, and have limited knowledge of the social and political terrain, our ability to control the ultimate outcome is very limited. As a practical matter, our goal is primarily the end of Qaddafi, a terrorist with the blood of Americans up to his elbows and a dictator so heinous even the club of Arab dictators could no longer abide him.
If his ouster is the final outcome, all the dodginess will have been worth it, and President Obama will be able to claim victory in this “kinetic military operation.”