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What Is Obama’s Goal in Libya?


After weeks of public agonizing and handwringing, and countless civilian casualties, President Obama has finally committed the United States to military action against Libyan forces loyal to Moammar Qaddafi. As the United States along with France and the United Kingdom launched strikes against Libyan targets on Saturday, the goals of Operation “Odyssey Dawn” were not entirely clear.

Obama-administration officials, including the president, have said repeatedly in recent weeks that Qaddafi had lost legitimacy and that he must leave. But the publicly stated goal of this United Nations–sanctioned operation is focused on protecting Libyan civilians, not on ousting Qaddafi.

The administration appears desperate to show that the United States is playing only a supporting role. In his remarks on Friday about Libya, the president spent more time discussing what the U.S. would not do than outlining what the U.S. contribution to the war effort would be.

Indeed, despite the prominent role played by U.S. naval assets in the initial bombardment of Libyan air-defense sites on Saturday, administration officials were quoted saying that the primary U.S. role would last only for days, implying that once the groundwork was laid for coalition air superiority, implementation would be turned over to the allies.

This may be smart politically for a president already enmeshed in more wars than his Democratic base is comfortable with, but it just adds to ongoing questions about the president’s capacity to lead.

Some in Washington — who are focused on the price tag of another military operation or the supposed over-extension of the U.S. military — may want to extricate ourselves from Libya as soon as possible, but as long as Qaddafi remains in power, the Libyan people will not be safe and U.S. interests in the region will not be secure.

Luckily, in recent weeks, other international leaders, primarily French president Nicolas Sarkozy and U.K. prime minister David Cameron, have shown the brass that President Obama lacks. Perhaps Qaddafi’s end will come because of their persistence and tenacity, if not Obama’s.

This would be a good outcome for the Libyan people and for the world, but will not address the long-term implications of a leader of the free world who increasingly appears reluctant or unwilling to lead.

— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.