Barack Obama: Conscience, Interests & Libya


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Tonight in a speech at the National Defense University, President Barack Obama shared with the nation his views on why US action in Libya was vital to protect thousands — and why it is equally vital not to make this incident a routenized pattern for other potential humanitarian interventions.
Obama stated:

. . .the United States and the world faced a choice. Gaddafi declared that he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

I am one of those who have been concerned about America’s tendency to strike first and think later, to get engaged abroad and then find our forces and power trapped rather than leveraged, to see mission creep set in, to see groups we were ostensibly helping splinter into pro- and anti-US camps teed up in a legitimacy struggle over who would rule after the intervention.
War planning can’t operate through best case scenarios; one has to account for the “slippery slope” into possibilities not originally imagined — and consider the unintended consequences triggered by large scale military action.
President Obama tonight outlined several important themes that deserve attention and, on the whole, support.
First, he took responsibility for making the judgment call that US troops needed to go in to stop a blood bath in Benghazi. The President admitted that this was a tough choice, an unsual one that is anomaly more than rule. I understand and accept the decision — though I think that Western intervention has a bad name in this part of the world, and we are on dangerous ground – even with an international consensus of support and even including the pleas for support from Libyan rebels.
President Obama made clear that there were assessments that he and his team made weighing acting and then the high costs of not acting. I think it must be axiomatic that Presidents will be more popular intervening after or during a major humanitarian atrocity than in preempting one — because the horror of nightmarish imagery hasn’t happened yet and thus isn’t as real a cost in the minds of many.
Obama seems determined to hand off the intervention to others in the international community, including ourselves through the portal of NATO — but still solidly partnered with other forces more in the lead. This is very good — and I’m pleased to hear that the President pushes this in every meeting he holds with his staff on Libya — and he’s been clear in his public statements as well that this can’t be an enduring responsibility of the US.
I think that the US will still remain heavily involved behind the scenes — particularly given our strength at complex system management and force integration. This will be a key Wizard of Oz role that a senior military commander told me we would continue to provide.
The President underscored the notion that major humanitarian crises that meet certain criteria can weigh heavily in our roster of other classic national interests. I understand this impulse — but worry about it. It’s very hard to see how this action doesn’t prompt an appetite among other rebels in other nations and situations for an intervening force to save them — or doesn’t demand a comparison with Yemen or Cote d’Ivoire, which is arguably closer to real Rwanda-like possibilities than Libya was.
I thought President Obama did a good job continuing to reinforce the limited nature of this mission, the limited exposure of the US military footprint, and that this was not going to lead to an American obsession with Messianic regime change abroad. I hope that this remains the US position — and that American forces and allied forces don’t get drawn into something from which it is very difficult to extract themselves.
Finally in his speech, President Obama reminded Americans that they must be humble about these affairs — that there is a tsunami of change in the world right now and the revolutions shaking the foundations of nation after nation in the Middle East are not about us. Some of these revolutions will fail; some will succeed.
These are fluid times — and it’s important that America express its opposition to violence against civilians, support the rights of people to assemble and protest, and to encourage reform. But America’s ability to actually save governments from their people — or alternatively, to help people in the streets rid themselves of bad governments — will be limited and peripheral.
The frame of the CNN and Al Jazeera lens cannot be on the West but rather needs to be on the people fighting hard for a different future. And that is the right call.
I think President Obama did a good job overall explaining the reasons why Libya mattered — but I’m not sure in an age when Americans are convinced their own nation is economically sinking and their jobs and services to support the middle class are being gutted that military intervention for any reasons, explained well or not, will be popular.
I have concerns that the world still sees America as caught in several traps — in Afghanistan, Libya, and more — rather than being the nation that makes global gravity work. And I’m not sure that the Libya intervention buys the United States much in the eyes of the world given how anomalous the President described Libya to be, but I do hope I’m wrong.
More later on Obama’s interesting speech.
— Steve Clemons


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