Monday, March 28, 2011

Obama on Libya: all-but-vital interests

Some quick notes on Obama's speech on Libya tonight:

1) In the wake of Robert Gates' weekend assertion that "vital interests" are not at stake in Libya, he threaded a needle between "vital interests" and "interests and values"  - a combination of humanitarian concern and, shall we say, not-quite-vital strategic interest:  
There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are.
Obama fleshed this out by starkly framing the humanitarian stakes--  "as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action" -- and laying out the strategic case:
Moreover, America has an important strategic interest in preventing Gaddafi 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. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the UN Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security. So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.
2) Somewhat less gnomically than in his press conference in Brazil, Obama divided the military goal -- preventing Gaddafi from mass slaughter, protecting civilians -- from the broader goal of regime change, to be achieved by nonmilitary means:
Of course, there is no question that Libya – and the world – will be better off with Gaddafi 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. ..

As the bulk of our military effort ratchets down, what we can do – and will do – is support the aspirations of the Libyan people. We have intervened to stop a massacre, and we will work with our allies and partners as they're in the lead to maintain the safety of civilians. We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power. It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gaddafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But it should be clear to those around Gadaffi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on his side. With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be.
This split mission, along with the coalition-based burden sharing, is his answer to those asking "where will this end?" and crying out for an exit strategy. Declare victory, get out, keep the pressure on. Risk management.

3) Implicitly fending off the dithering charge, he deployed historical perspective to cast his conduct as swift and decisive:

To summarize, then: in just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a No Fly Zone with our allies and partners. To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians.
4) He showed his affinity in the foreign policy arena with the administration of George H.W. Bush, in stressing a) the imperative to stick to a limited mission, and b) the importance of assembling and maintaining an international coalition, both for legitimacy and burden-sharing:
a)  The task that I assigned our forces – to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a No Fly Zone – carries with it a UN mandate and international support. It is also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do. If we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.

To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq's future. But regime change there 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.
b)  In such cases, we should not be afraid to act – but the burden of action should not be America's alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.
I would add that part b) is back to the future: this is a bid to redefine the terms of American leadership.

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