Widely praised as an effective defense of Washington’s 10-day-old military intervention in Libya, President Barack Obama’s speech Monday evening appears to have left several key questions about his future intentions unanswered.
While confirming that the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi remained a U.S. policy goal, Obama ruled out the use of military force to achieve it, noting that such a course would “splinter” the multilateral coalition that has thus far backed the U.S.-led campaign. Regime change, he insisted, would be pursued only through “non-military means.”
But with pro-Gadhafi forces reportedly mounting a counter-offensive against the rebels Tuesday, the question left hanging was how Obama might yet bring about regime change or whether he would be satisfied with something short of such an outcome.
Similarly, Obama’s assertion that the U.S. would, under certain circumstances, intervene militarily—and even pre-emptively—for humanitarian purposes in countries where it did not have vital interests raised questions about how specific those circumstances have to be.
Indeed, pundits across the political spectrum spent much of Tuesday grappling with the question of whether the president had enunciated an “Obama Doctrine” that, while not nearly as aggressive and unilateralist as that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, nonetheless prescribed a leading or an “exceptional” role for the United States in protecting and promoting its “values” around the world.
“He thoroughly rejected the so-called realist approach, extolled American exceptionalism, spoke of universal values, and insisted that American power should be used, when appropriate, on behalf of those values,” exulted Robert Kagan, a leading neoconservative at the Brookings Institution, who added that Obama had made clear that U.S. leadership was “essential, even indispensable.”
But other analysts disagreed, arguing that the speech’s bold rhetoric—”The United States is different. And, as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action”—was undercut by the president’s emphasis on the uniqueness of the situation.
“It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever
repression occurs,” he said.
“[I]n this particular country— Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale,” he said, speaking of the impending attack by Gadhafi’s forces on the rebel capital, Benghazi, last week.
“We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves,” he said.
“[I]n effect, what he was saying was we will intervene to advance our eternal American values … when circumstances permit,” wrote David Rothkopf on his ForeignPolicy.com blog. “For all of the talk about our responsibilities to the international community and to humanitarian ideals, the message was: Libya, yes… Congo, no… Darfur, no… Syria, probably not… Yemen, unlikely… Bahrain, heck no.”
“I think the president was careful not to indicate that Libya sets a precedent,” agreed Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think what he was trying to do was to build public support for intervention in Libya, and historically speaking, Americans respond well to arguments about the need for humanitarian intervention.”
Obama’s speech came amid growing public and congressional concerns about the U.S. mission.
Despite the clear success U.S. and allied airpower had achieved in preventing Gadhafi’s forces from attacking Benghazi and in turning the tide of battle in favor of the rebels, who, since late last week, had reclaimed much of the territory along the eastern and central Mediterranean coasts they had lost in the face of the government’s counter-offensive earlier this month, polls conducted over the weekend showed that the public was deeply and roughly evenly split over Washington’s intervention and Obama’s handling of the crisis.
And while Obama’s speech—and the fact that NATO will formally take over command of the operation Wednesday—may have bolstered confidence in his decision to intervene, the fact that Gadhafi’s forces reportedly regained ground Tuesday could raise new questions.
While the latest developments were themselves inconclusive, they suggested that the most-optimistic scenarios here—that the rebels would roll on to the gates of Tripoli as demoralized pro-Gadhafi forces gave up resistance and deserted en masse—were unlikely to be realized and that the month-old civil war could slide into a strategic stalemate.
That in turn is likely to increase pressure on the administration to take stronger action to achieve its declared and repeated aim of removing Gadhafi, despite Obama’s insistence in his speech that he would use military force only to protect civilians and not to effect regime change.
Indeed, Republican Sen. John McCain welcomed Obama’s remarks and particularly his “clarity that the U.S. goal is for Gadhafi to leave power.”
“But an equal amount of clarity is still required on how we will accomplish that goal,” he went on, noting that “the potential for a long and bloody stalemate is still far too high.”
Echoing recent appeals by neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, McCain called, in particular, for “providing material support to opposition forces in Libya while continuing to target Gadhafi’s forces in the field.”
The latter recommendation appears already to have been adopted despite Obama’s assurances that he will pursue only “non-military means” to remove the Libyan leader. Quoting military analysts, the New York Times reported Tuesday that the U.S. strategy “is to hit Libyan forces hard enough to force them to oust Colonel Gadhafi.”
“In other words, no matter what Obama said last night, the United States is in fact using military forces to produce regime change in Libya,” wrote Stephen Walt, a Harvard University international-relations expert on his ForeignPolicy.com blog Tuesday. He also noted that the speech left open the “possibility of covert action by the CIA, or even CIA-operated drone strikes.”
As to arming the rebels, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opened the door to that option at a strategy meeting of senior officials from several dozen leaders of European, North American, and Arab countries and international agencies in London Tuesday despite a U.N. arms embargo on Libya.
“It is our interpretation that [U.N. Security Council
resolution] 1973 [which authorized military action to
protect civilians in Libya] amended or overrode the absolute
prohibition of arms to anyone in Libya so that there could
be legitimate transfer of arms if a country were to choose
to do that. … [W]e have not made that decision at this time,”
(Inter Press Service)