A Libyan Quagmire?
May 30, 2011
By Roger Aronoff
The botched and confused handling of the conflict in Libya has been a stunning example of President Obama’s leadership style, and of the media’s continued determination to ignore or gloss over anything that makes him look weak, incompetent or indecisive. What started out as a humanitarian mission to protect the civilian population of Benghazi, Libya, soon evolved into a stalemate. The dilemma is that Obama has repeatedly said that the goal is for regime change, but the NATO mission tasked to establish a no-fly zone and to protect the civilians does not provide the means to accomplish that goal.
It wasn’t until events in Egypt unfolded that the world’s attention moved west to Libya. On February 11th, Egypt’s president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down from office after weeks of drama, massive demonstrations, and a sense of inevitability that change was coming to the Middle East. President Obama stepped up to claim credit for his administration’s handling of the situation, but he was immediately faced with a growing crisis in Libya, where the circumstances were quite different from those in Egypt. Mubarak had been allied with the U.S. both militarily and diplomatically for many years. Egypt had kept the peace with Israel, and kept the Iranian-backed Hamas in Gaza from easily acquiring weapons and artillery with which to use against Israel.
Mubarak allowed the media to remain in the country with their cameras running, and chose not to use the kind of ruthless force necessary to shut down the protests against his government. Many analysts expressed concern that the best organized group in the country, other than the military, was the Muslim Brotherhood, which had spawned groups such al Qaeda. The concern was that if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in the wake of Mubarak’s departure, they were more likely to create an Islamist state governed by Sharia law, rather than a free and democratic state. In fact, there are already ominous signs that another chance at democracy in the Middle East is being hijacked by radical Islamists. One of the new government’s first acts was to allow an Iranian ship to pass through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. The outcome of the revolution remains an uncertain concern for the West.
Less than a week after Mubarak stepped down, February 17th became a “day of rage” in Libya, marking the five-year anniversary of the start of the riots over the Danish cartoons that featured images of Muhammad. The uprising in Libya was followed by weeks of confusion and consternation in the U.S. and Europe. As Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were brutally taking on his own people, Western nations pondered and debated the right move.
With Gaddafi and his sons threatening to mercilessly crush the opposition forces, calls for intervention grew louder, though who would lead, the nature of the force, and defining the goals remained elusive.
On March 10, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead and recognized the official Libyan opposition, while at the same time the United Nations voted to remove Libya from its Human Rights Commission. As if to underline the absurdity of the situation, yes, Libya was on the UN’s Human Rights Commission.
Not to be left behind, President Obama began intense negotiations with his own advisers and cabinet members. As Foreign Policy magazine’s blog, “The Cable,” noted, “At the start of this week (March 14), the consensus around Washington was that military action against Libya was not in the cards. However, in the last several days, the White House completely altered its stance and successfully pushed for the authorization for military intervention against Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. What changed?
“The key decision was made by President Barack Obama himself at a Tuesday evening senior-level meeting at the White House, which was described by two administration officials as ‘extremely contentious.’ Inside that meeting, officials presented arguments both for and against attacking Libya. Obama ultimately sided with the interventionists.”
Obama is said to have concluded that “This is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values...referring to the broader change going on in the Middle East and the need to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights.”
So why Libya and not the other countries in the region? Again, according to The Cable’s Josh Rogin, who previously reported for Congressional Quarterly and worked at The Brookings Institution, “In Egypt and Tunisia, Obama chose to rebalance the American stance gradually backing away from support for President Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and allowing the popular movements to run their course. In Yemen and Bahrain, where the uprisings have turned violent, Obama has not even uttered a word in support of armed intervention—instead pressing those regimes to embrace reform on their own. But in deciding to attack Libya, Obama has charted an entirely new strategy, relying on U.S. hard power and the use of force to influence the outcome of Arab events.”
Rogin described the discussions that went on leading up to the military action: “Inside the administration, senior officials were lined up on both sides. Pushing for military intervention was a group of NSC staffers including Samantha Power, along with Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice. On the other side of the ledger were some Obama administration officials who were reportedly wary of the second- and third-degree effects of committing to a lengthy military mission in Libya. These officials included National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also opposed to attacking Libya and had said as much in several public statements.”
Following the meeting on March 15th, according to Josh Rogin, “Obama gave U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice instructions to go the U.N. Security Council and push for a resolution that would give the international community authority to use force. Her instructions were to get a resolution that would give the international community broad authority to achieve Qaddafi’s removal, including the use of force beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone.”
On March 19th Obama announced that he had “authorized the Armed Forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians,” and that he had “acted after consulting with my national security team, and Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress.”
The irony here, as noted by the blogger Glenn Reynolds, was that “Barack Obama ordered the bombing of an Arab dictatorship at precisely the same point in his presidency that George W. Bush did”—March 19th of their third year in office.
On March 28, Obama finally addressed the nation in prime time, and said, “Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and the no-fly zone. Last night, NATO decided to take on the additional responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians. This transfer from the United States to NATO will take place on Wednesday. Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Qaddafi’s remaining forces.”
In his speech, Obama criticized both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He implied that Bush had acted unilaterally and recklessly in Iraq, without the backing of a broad coalition, and that Bill Clinton and the international community had taken more than a full year to mobilize and intervene to save lives in Bosnia in the 1990s.
But what Obama did was to bypass Congress. While he sought the approval of NATO and the U.N., he informed the leaders of Congress the day before military actions began, and issued a letter within 48 hours after the strikes began to be in compliance with the War Powers Act.
Most of the mainstream media, particularly network news coverage, had no problem with the fact that Obama had not sought congressional approval, as President Bush (41 and 43) had done in waging war on Iraq. The fact is that no president has sought an official declaration of war since World War II, but in most cases, the presidents sought and received an authorization for the use of force from Congress.
In the print media, there was some notable criticism of President Obama. The day after his March 28th speech, for example, the Associated Press came down hard on Obama and challenged much of what he had said. For example, in response to his statement about transferring command of the operation to NATO, the AP said, “The United States supplies 22 percent of NATO’s budget,” and that “the commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples, is an American admiral, and the admiral’s boss is the supreme allied commander Europe, a post always held by an American.”
There were other examples as well that the AP noted:
OBAMA: “Our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives.”
THE FACTS: Even as the U.S. steps back as the nominal leader, reduces some assets and fires a declining number of cruise missiles, the scope of the mission appears to be expanding and the end game remains unclear.
OBAMA: Seeking to justify military intervention, the president said the U.S. has “an important strategic interest in preventing Gadhafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful—yet fragile—transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.” He added: “I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.”
THE FACTS: Obama did not wait to make that case to Congress, despite his past statements that presidents should get congressional authorization before taking the country to war, absent a threat to the nation that cannot wait.
OBAMA: “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
THE FACTS: Mass violence against civilians has also been escalating elsewhere, without any U.S. military intervention anticipated.
One final jab from the AP: “Presidents typically pick their fights according to the crisis and circumstances at hand, not any consistent doctrine about when to use force in one place and not another. They have been criticized for doing so—by Obama himself.
“The failure of the international air campaign to force Kadafi’s ouster, or even to stop his military from shelling civilians and recapturing rebel-held towns, poses a growing quandary for President Obama and other NATO leaders: What now?