Before President Obama’s Monday evening Libya speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell posed four questions he hoped the president would answer. Obama gave partial and unconvincing answers to two and left the other two unaddressed.
Instead, the president spent nearly half an hour trying — and failing — to make a cogent argument for U.S. military action for humanitarian purposes and presenting the Obama Doctrine justifying risking American blood and treasure “when our safety is not directly threatened.”
McConnell’s questions were ones which many, not least many members of Congress in both political parties, want answers to:
• Will America’s commitment end in days, not weeks, as the president promised?
• What will be the duration of the non-combat operation, and what will be the cost?
• What national security interest of the United States justified the risk of American life?
• What is the role of our country in Libya’s ongoing civil war?
Regarding U.S. involvement in military operations, the president offered only a rehashing of his prior statements and re-emphasizing his desire to turn America from leader to equal-at-best participant in most ongoing combat:
I said that America’s role would be limited and that we would not put ground troops into Libya. That we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation. And that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners. Tonight we are fulfilling that pledge.
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 civilians. This transfer from the United States to NATO will take place on Wednesday.
UPDATE: In a sign of NATO’s view of Obama’s vaunted leadership, a NATO diplomat announced on Tuesday morning that the alliance’s takeover of Libyan operations would be delayed until Thursday, in part so allies might modify their levels of participation based on a Tuesday conference about Libya.
Obama said that the U.S. will “play a supporting role” in ongoing operations and that the “risk and cost of this operation to our military and taxpayers will be reduced significantly.” He neglected to explain, however, how this transfer furthers the military mission, focusing instead on “international partners,” “a broad coalition,” and an “international mandate,” as if ensuring that a few diplomats getting along for an extra week is more important than secondary considerations such as winning.
In other words, America’s commitment remains undefined in both time and cost despite Obama’s hiding behind NATO’s skirt.
The answer to a question of the length and cost of non-combat operations was even more evasive: “While our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives, we continue to pursue the broader goal of a Libya which belongs not to a dictator but to its people.” Obama explained what he expects the U.S. to do following combat operations:
We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supplies 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 cling on to power…history is not on Gaddafi’s side.
This answered McConnell’s last question of our likely role, but not the critical question of duration and cost.
And again, he emphasized the value he puts on “work[ing] with allies and partners so they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs.”
On one hand, it is a welcome change to hear the president show some concern for cost to taxpayers, not least because the Pentagon said on Monday that the U.S. has spent at least $600 million on Libyan operations so far, of which about $270 million was for 191 Tomahawk missiles and about $60 million to replace an F-15E fighter that last week crashed near Benghazi after a reported malfunction.
On the other hand, why is the president only concerned about saving money when it comes to military action, whereas the cost to taxpayers was irrelevant during his historic piling up of deficits and debt during his first two years in office? Obama noted that Iraq has cost us “nearly a trillion dollars” and “that is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.” It’s too bad he thinks we can afford to repeat it in D.C., Detroit, and every place he wants to put a high-speed rail station.
The issue of America’s national security interest that would justify our involvement in Libya brought out the true internationalist in President Obama. Rather than give an honest answer, “oil,” which he probably doesn’t actually understand or believe, the president gave three basic answers to why America had to get involved in Libya: The “international community” wanted us to, civilians were at risk, and we didn’t want to see Libyan refugees “strain[ing] the peaceful yet fragile transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.”
The president said, trying to justify the use of the American military by a theoretical and emotional plea, “as president I refuse to wait for images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” He tried to Americanize the story by saying that Benghazi, the city against whose residents Gaddafi had threatened “no mercy,” was “nearly the size of Charlotte.” Oh, now I understand why we spent half a billion dollars in a week.
Obama also suggested that our not stopping Gaddafi’s assault on his own people would mean that “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.” One has to wonder what other conclusion those leaders will reach due to our involvement in Libya. Perhaps it’s “If we’re going to attack our own people, we’d better do it faster than old Moammar did.”
His final justification for U.S. action was perhaps the most disturbing: Without us, “the writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security.” At least I think it was his final justification; I missed his next sentence because I was laughing so hard.
None of these, even with the president’s repeated crowing that our “leadership” in Libya has “see[n] that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all” would meet the standard of our national strategic interest as defined by any serious thinker, much less any serious thinker at the National Defense University from which Obama gave his speech. One would have thought he’d have learned more while at that fine institution.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, the last minutes of Obama’s address were what will likely be termed the “Obama Doctrine,” basically saying that he is willing to use our military “when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are.” Unfortunately, it is very difficult to define “interests” outside of safety, particularly in the Middle East for a president who has a pathological dislike of oil. And going to war over “values,” well that should trouble even those Americans who believe they share Obama’s values.
Beyond his evasiveness regarding basic questions to which the country wants straight answers, Obama’s speech showed a continuing incoherence regarding the mission in Iraq:
While Obama argued for “a Libya which belongs not to a dictator but to its people,” he then pushed back against those who argue for an explicit mission to remove Gaddafi: “Of course there is no question that Libya and the world would 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.”
It’s no wonder that the president can’t and won’t give a prediction on when our involvement will end or how much it will cost. His refusal to understand the only possible definition of success in Libya, namely the removal, dead or alive, of Gaddafi from that country, all but ensures a bloody, chaotic quagmire unless a Canadian NATO general does what Obama won’t. (Wagers, anyone?) Furthermore, such a quagmire will be even less tolerated by our allies’ voting publics, meaning that one ally — and when we’re talking about the UAE and Turkey, we have to use that term very loosely — after another will likely drop out, leaving the U.S. having to take back a larger leadership role in a mission without end.
And then there was Obama, the permanent campaigner. Before suggesting that his approach to Libya is not aiming at regime change because “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” the president was at his indignant best: “For those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear, the United States of America has done what we said we would do.”
But no serious argument was made against our involvement based on a potential inability “to carry out this operation,” at least as far as the early military action was involved. Instead the arguments were about an unclear mission with an unknown definition of success risking American prestige (which is strategically important, and not just for Americans’ collective ego) by aggressively giving up leadership to such courageous forces as the French and the Arab League.
Fortunately for those of us who analyze Barack Obama’s words on a regular basis, our job was made much easier by his inclusion of the phrase “I want to be clear.” In Obama-speak, that phrase always precedes a statement which is either a misdirection or a lie, as the president somehow believes that making his worst arguments clearer will somehow make them better.
If Barack Obama went after Gaddafi with the fury with which he slew straw men in his speech, maybe we really could end America’s involvement in Libya in days rather than weeks.
Despite Senator McConnell’s excellent cues for Barack Obama to follow, the president’s Monday speech on Libya left as much confusion, both about today and about the future, as it resolved. One thing we learned with certainty, however, is that for this president having an international consensus is more important than having a true strategic interest.