Analysis: Obama's Libya Speech Leaves Many Questions Unanswered

Posted: Mar 29, 2011 9:00 AM
The AP fact check of the president's speech that Carol linked last night is quite useful.  Two points stand out.  First:

OBAMA: "Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and no-fly zone. ... 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 Gadhafi's remaining forces. In that effort, the United States will play a supporting role."

THE FACTS: As by far the pre-eminent player in NATO, and a nation historically reluctant to put its forces under operational foreign command, the United States will not be taking a back seat in the campaign even as its profile diminishes for public consumption.

NATO partners are bringing more into the fight. But the same "unique capabilities" that made the U.S. the inevitable leader out of the gate will continue to be in demand.

In other words, this is still very much our ballgame.  Second:

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.

More than 1 million people have fled the Ivory Coast, where the U.N. says forces loyal to the incumbent leader, Laurent Gbagbo, have used heavy weapons against the population and more than 460 killings have been confirmed of supporters of the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara.

The Obama administration says Gbagbo and Gadhafi have both lost their legitimacy to rule. But only one is under attack from the U.S.

As someone who's been inclined to reluctantly support this military action -- but who has been dismayed by the administration's handling of it -- the most puzzling element to me is the president's post-facto, contradictory justification of our involvement.  The standarfor intervention he laid out was a jumbled mess, unpacked nicely by Hot Air's Allahpundit:

So if I have this straight, (1) a bloodbath was looming in Benghazi, (2) America’s role as leader of freedom-loving peoples gives it a special duty to intervene abroad to prevent bloodbaths and protect human rights, but (3) if we can’t do it as part of an international effort, too bad, so sad. Does that make sense? Especially given that the “leadership” evinced in coalition-building here wasn’t as robust as it was in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Obama argued that preventing a human rights catastrophe is not only in our national interest, but is also, in essence, a requirement of America, given her unique standing in the world.  Textbook American exceptionalism.  But he simultaneously telegraphed the clear impression that this intervention would not have occurred without a UN permission slip, and stressed repeatedly (and somewhat disingenuously, as evidenced in the fact check above) that our leading role in the operation has now come to an end.  I'm having trouble squaring those points. 

I'm also unclear on what the administration's policy on regime change is, moving forward.  The president said the scope of our mission (protecting civilians) is limited, but we'll continue to push for Gaddafi's ouster.  What if that's not enough to shake the dictator's grip on power?  Could a NATO-supervised stalemate -- in which Gaddafi continues to rule the country, in defiance of the will of his people -- drag on indefinitely?  How would that align with the president's oft-repeated refrain that Gaddafi "must go"?

Finally, the entire speech focused on the conclusions reached by this administration and the so-called "international community."  What about the judgments of the United States Congress?  Obama's address was roughly 3,400 words in length.  He uttered the word "Congress" just once, in passing:

...Nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.

To what extent was Congress "consulted"?  Was this consultation meaningful?  Who, precisely, was consulted, and in what context?  It sure seemed like the Speaker of the House still harbored quite a few fundamental questions as recently as last Wednesday -- well after the bombing campaign was underway.

Finally, I was irked by the way the president cast his remarks as an "update" on the situation in Libya.  Providing an update on something implies that that a substantial discussion on the subject has already occurred; in this case, prior to last night, it had not.

Does anyone, including the president himself, know where this thing is headed?  Or where it should head?  Last night, the president said our military efforts in Libya are "ratcheting down."  But as the New York Times now reports, we may actually be ramping things up:

Even as President Obama on Monday described a narrower role for the United States in a NATO-led operation in Libya, the American military has been carrying out an expansive and increasingly potent air campaign to compel the Libyan Army to turn against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

In his speech on Monday night, Mr. Obama, as he has in the past, portrayed the mission as a limited one, and described the United States’ role as “supporting.” But interviews in recent days offer a fuller picture of American involvement, and show that it is far deeper than discussed in public and more instrumental to the fight than was previously known.

Is the president confused, misinformed, or misleading?  Or does the Times have it wrong?