28.03.2011 | Lexington | The Economist
“Born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way. Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States. Ultimately, it is that faith – those ideals – that are the true measure of American leadership”.
THUS President Barack Obama tonight, speaking to the American people directly for the first time since launching Operation Odyssey Dawn and unleashing American missiles in Libya. He had received a great deal of criticism—for “dithering”, for failing to consult Congress, for going too far and doing too little. Now he has answered back—and provided, at the same time, the clearest explanation so far of an “Obama doctrine” of humanitarian military intervention.
Far from “dithering”, goes the White House line, pushed subtly in the speech and explicitly in briefings by senior officials, Mr Obama’s handling of the Libyan crisis has been “relatively extraordinary”. He has in a mere 31 days since the protests started imposed powerful sanctions, frozen Colonel Qaddafi’s assets, secured a robust Security Council resolution, organised an international coalition, executed a near-flawless military campaign, rolled Colonel Qaddafi’s forces back to the west, taken out the colonel’s air defences and knocked out a good deal of his ground forces. All this has been done without having to put American boots on the ground, without American military casualties and with precious few Libyan civilian casualties. Better still, with all this now done, America’s own contribution can decline, NATO can assume command (under an American general but with a Canadian deputy) and the European allies will take on more of the burden. Compare that, say senior administration officials, to the years it took to intervene in Bosnia in the 1990s.
To those hyper-realists who ask why it was necessary for America to entangle itself in Libya at all, the president’s answer appears to run as follows. First, he will never hesitate to use military power, unilaterally if necessary, in defence of the nation’s core interests. No such core interests were at risk in Libya, but some interests were. For example, the unrest in Libya might have disrupted the far more consequential democratic revolutions in Tunisia and especially Egypt, where America has a good deal more at stake. Moreover, it would not have been right to turn a blind eye to the possibility of Colonel Qaddafi carrying out his blood-curdling threats to show “no mercy” to the inhabitants of Benghazi. In such cases, however, it makes powerful sense, when possible, for America to share the burden with allies under the authority of the United Nations. This is how he put it in his speech:
“It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. 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. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground. To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. 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.”
To critics on the opposite side of the argument, who ask why Mr Obama does not just finish the job by killing the colonel himself, the White House’s answer is that this would not only exceed the mandate of UN Resolution 1973, which calls only for protecting the civilian population, but risk splintering an artfully assembled alliance. That would leave America “owning” the resulting mess. The administration acknowledges that the denouement in Libya is likely to be messy anyway, but would prefer an internationalised mess to one for which America alone is held responsible. Might this American restraint enable Colonel Qaddafi to hang on for months, even longer, in spite of all the other efforts to squeeze and isolate him? Perhaps: but even if he holds out in some bunker in Tripoli, surrounded by human shields, the White House does not see how he could continue to govern Libya in any practical sense.
Another criticism of Mr Obama is that his policy is inconsistent. Why batter Colonel Qaddafi and not intervene on the side of the opposition in Yemen, Bahrain, perhaps even Syria? Mr Obama is thought to be preparing another speech, some time in the next month or two, that will set out his broader thinking on what the Arab awakening means to Arabs and the wider world, and spell out how America might be able to help nudge it in a favourable direction. Yet the president plainly believes that there are so many variables in the present fast-moving circumstances that it is not possible to adopt a single doctrine that fits each case. Bahrain has cracked down forcibly on the opposition but not in the manner of a Qaddafi—and both America, with its naval base, and Saudi Arabia have a powerful strategic interest in the country. Ditto Yemen, a hodge-podge of tribes and factions with a dangerous al-Qaeda presence.
Until Mr Obama gives his larger speech on the significance of the Arab awakening, much of the White House’s focus will continue to be on developments on the ground in Libya. The next tactical steps are supposedly to be decided by the wider alliance talks taking place this week in London. But senior White House officials say that they will continue to push for military action against the colonel’s military forces whenever they can be construed to be posing a threat to the civilian population. The United States is already in direct contact with the opposition forces, who will also be represented in London. Though not yet ready to recognise them as the Libyans’ legitimate government (as the French already have), it is edging in this direction. Crucially, the administration does not think that Resolution 1973 prevents outsiders from arming the opposition. Mr Obama described the next steps like this:
“As the bulk of our military effort ratchets down, what we can do – and will do – is support the aspirations of the Libyan people. We have intervened to stop a massacre, and we will work with our allies and partners as they’re in the lead to maintain the safety of civilians. We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Qaddafi leaves power. It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Qaddafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But it should be clear to those around Qaddafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on his side. With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be.
It is a good case—and it was a good speech. If Colonel Qaddafi is swept quickly from power, or reduced to impotence in some bunker, nobody will care very much about the manner in which Mr Obama put together his alliance and campaign. It might indeed be remembered as an extraordinary foreign-policy success. After the rescue of Kuwait in 1991, however, the first President George Bush also expected Saddam Hussein’s regime to collapse in short order. Mr Obama’s team says the circumstances this time are entirely different. They had better be right. ”
28.03.2011 | Lexington | The Economist