For over a week, Washington has had to play charades, trying to determine the scope and nature of the U.S. commitment by sifting through various public statements from officials — statements mostly describing what the mission was not, rather than succinctly stating what it is.
Now, after a week of sitting back, watching events unfold, and seeing that they did not turn into an unmitigated disaster, the president has decided to tell us what he’s up to.
This might have been an okay speech last week, when it was pretty clear that the right way forward was to minimize the commitment of the U.S. military, look after the best interests of Libya’s civilian population, and limit the spread of terrorism and instability throughout the region.
A week ago, too, the laundry list of what needed to be done was pretty clear: (1) Keep Qaddafi isolated until he is brought to justice; (2) establish a military presence to keep his forces from driving the opposition into the sea; (3) identify, support, and sustain a legitimate opposition that brings democracy to the country, rather than letting it become the next terrorist haven, and that looks after the humanitarian needs and the human rights of the people under its control.
If what needed to be done was common sense a week ago, hearing the president say it now hardly instills confidence.
All we really learned in last night’s speech is how that’s going to get done. The “international community” is going to do it.
True, that’s not much of an answer, but at least now the president has given us one. We’ll see how well it works. He dedicated almost nothing in the speech to the single most important challenge: building and sustaining a coalition that will see the mission in Libya through. That’s not much of a comfort, either.
The worst part of the speech was the cheap political shots. His dig at President Bush, in particular, was gratuitous. “Regime change [in Iraq] took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya,” Obama said.
This could become a statement the president comes to regret as much as the “Mission Accomplished” banner draped on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln when Bush declared the “end of hostilities.” Before he takes a bow, he ought to be sure he can deliver on this tall order.
After all, Libya today looks not too different from how the U.S. started the First Gulf War. We went in with the blessings of the Arab world. We had allies. We had limited objectives. We put in a no-fly zone. We believed Saddam could not hold on forever — and years later we ended up invading anyway.
— James Jay Carafano is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.