The Corner

Obama Still Murky on Libya

President Obama just gave a weird speech. Part George W. Bush, part trademark Obama — filled with his characteristic split-the-difference, straw-man (“some say, others say”), false-choice tropes.

His support for those “yearning for freedom all around the world” was the sort of interventionist foreign policy that a Senator Obama — if his past reaction to the removal of Saddam Hussein is any indication — would have objected to, especially in the case of sending bombers over an Arab Muslim oil-exporting country. Since Saddam was a far greater monster (gassing thousands is far worse than turning off the water to neighborhoods) than the monsters that Obama now wishes to slay, I think he has confused rather than enlightened his audience.

There was no mention of the Congress. Is he going to ever ask its approval? And if not, why the repeated emphasis on asking others such as the Arab League or the UN for their approval — given that their representatives, unlike ours, are largely not elected? 

In a speech dedicated to clarifying our policy, it left it even more murky. What was our objective, and what is it now? Obama asserted that “We have stopped his deadly advance.” But is that the aim — the status quo, and a sort of permanent safe zone for rebels in accordance with UN directives? Or are we going beyond that to eliminate Qaddafi, who is the source of the problem? The president now says he won’t overthrow Qaddafi by force, but that is what he hopes, in fact, will happen as a result of our military presence:

Of course, there is no question that Libya — and the world — will be better off with Qaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.

This is reminiscent of George H.W. Bush’s declaration that he wanted Saddam gone, had used our military to save Kuwait, but not to remove Saddam, urged others to remove him — and then ended up solving one problem while creating another more violent and unending. 

Constant reference was made to UN sanctions, in contrast both to the costs incurred in Bush’s Iraq, and the dithering by Clinton in the Balkans. He talked of allies, of joint operations, and a diminished American role to come. But again, to fulfill the UN mandate of saving the Libyans, he is going to have to violate — or at least go beyond — it by going after Qaddafi, a task he now seems to have outsourced to the Europeans, after ceasing the Tomahawk attacks on key Libyan ground installations. Why brag that “we targeted tanks and military assets that had been choking off towns and cities and we cut off much of their source of supply” when we are not going to do it any more, in admission that to do so would be going well beyond a UN-sanctioned no-fly-zone?

Translation: It now seems good to have removed Saddam, but too costly. It was good to remove Milosevic, but it took too long. So I will remove Qaddafi much more quickly and at far less cost, but I won’t do it by targeting Qaddafi, but by preventing his aircraft from flying and hoping Qaddafi goes away. Qaddafi deserves our special intervention because he is worse than other dictators, such as an Assad who is a “reformer” or Ahmadinejad whom we won’t “meddle” against. We successfully sought a UN resolution to protect the people, and will stick by it, but hope somehow someone will go beyond it and remove Qaddafi. We are an exceptional nation that has always acted out of humanitarian concerns in a way not true of other countries (“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. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.”), but unfortunately in this case 

the United States will play a supporting role — including intelligence, logistical support, search-and-rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications. Because of this transition to a broader, NATO-based coalition, the risk and cost of this operation — to our military, and to American taxpayers — will be reduced significantly.

Somehow, I don’t think Qaddafi will be impressed enough to step down; the European allies will be somewhat confused over the degree of future American support; the rebels will wonder whether they should take Tripoli or should settle for a zone of sanctuary; critics won’t know whether Obama will ever consult the Congress;  we still don’t know why Qaddafi was worse than an Assad or Ahmadinejad — or who or what the rebels are and what the U.S. role will be to ensure something better than Qaddafi. 

Other than that, it was yet another well-delivered, split-the-difference, mellifluous Obama speech that said essentially nothing of substance.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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