President Barack Obama offered a robust defense of U.S. actions in Libya on March 28, but his words and ideas should not be taken for policy. What happens when Libya reaches the next of many forks in the road? What happens when the conflicting views of the U.S. Defense and State Departments collide?

Beginning in mid-February, when the Libyan military began mowing down protesters, and a ragtag army of rebels emerged, the Pentagon said no to intervention. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sharply disputed that U.S. national-security interests were at stake. Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs, argued that destroying Libyan antiaircraft weapons and radar to create a no-fly zone was an act of war, a word the White House refuses to use. On March 6, Bill Daley, the president’s chief of staff, defended Gates and dismissed those calling for a no-fly zone, saying they think it’s “a video game.”  

Yet only a week after Daley’s mocking comment on Meet the Press, Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN, was busy lobbying for just such an intervention. What happened?

The French and British, with strong national interests at stake, energetically pressed for a no-fly zone, and on March 10, France went so far as to repudiate Qaddafi and recognize the “rebel council.” On March 12, the Arab League voted, reluctantly and with subsequent waffling, for a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians. Finally, as Qaddafi’s forces closed in on Benghazi, the rebel stronghold, the rebels themselves called for intervention.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Rice, and National Security Council adviser Samantha Power reportedly joined forces to press for a no-fly zone on humanitarian grounds. The trio, who in different roles had watched the 1994 Rwandan genocide, no doubt made a compelling moral and emotional argument to the president about protecting civilians. Thereafter, Ambassador Rice went to work crafting UN Resolution 1973, and seeing it through a winning vote (10 to 0, with five abstentions).

With that, Secretary Clinton cobbled together a coalition of the very enthusiastic (Britain and France), the somewhat reluctant (the United States), and the downright ambivalent (the Arabs and Turkey). On March 20, with U.S. missiles clearing the way, French war planes opened the attack on Qaddafi’s forces.

In little more than a month, U.S. policy turned on a dime, and on March 28, the president explained why the United States joined the attack on Qaddafi. Obama was nuanced about purpose, deft in responding to criticisms, and adamant about our goals being limited. He noted the nonmilitary efforts already in place: a weapons embargo, economic sanctions, and Qaddafi’s assets seized. He rejected the false choices of “staying out” or “going all in,” carefully drawing a line between humanitarian intervention and war. He deftly landed in the middle of his divided administration. “Faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale,” he said, the United States refused “to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves” (imagine Rwanda; chalk one up for the trio). On the other hand, he warned, “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake”—no boots on the ground (chalk one up for the Pentagon). The president called for Qaddafi’s removal “through nonmilitary means” (let his people take care of him) and promised that the future of Libya would rest with the Libyan people (no occupation).

Obama studiously avoided words and ideas that would link Libya to our current debacle in Afghanistan and the mess that is Iraq. Still, he didn’t ease the foreboding sense that we’ve been down this road before: unintended consequences inevitably emerge. Already the rebels, seeing the ease with which the air attacks can decimate their opponents, want more missiles rained down on Qaddafi’s forces. And they want us to give them weapons they will need to be trained to use. Civilians will be caught in the back-and-forth of ground battles, and even a brief civil war will take its toll of rebels and civilians alike.

The case for humanitarian intervention is compelling: An air war in the guise of saving civilians is easier than deciding to send troops. The moral and emotional underpinning of humanitarian intervention frees its proponents from the constraints of establishing a just cause (isn’t saving civilians ipso facto a just cause?), or gauging proportionate means.

The president’s speech may have been well crafted and convincingly argued. Nonetheless, who would be surprised if this humanitarian intervention had unintended consequences that led to new appeals to send not only weapons but troops? Will we soon be listening to another speech?

Related: Turmoil in the Middle East, by the Editors
A Just War in Libya? by David Cortright

Published in the 2011-04-22 issue: View Contents

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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