Monday, March 28, 2011

Obama's Libya Speech Tonight

President Obama spoke to the nation tonight and sought to rally support for his intervention in Libya. I think he had some important goals: to clarify objectives and inspire the public to support them.

One rationale was that the US had to step in to stop the wholesale slaughter of civilians:

I made it clear that Gaddafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead, and I said that he needed to step down from power.

In the face of the world's condemnation, Gaddafi chose to escalate his attacks, launching a military campaign against the Libyan people. Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted, and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off. The water for hundreds of thousands of people in Misratah was shut off. Cities and towns were shelled, mosques destroyed, and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assault from the air….

At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Gaddafi declared that he would show "no mercy" to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi - a city nearly the size of Charlotte - could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

So far so good. I think most Americans are convinced that Gaddafi is a bad man and a tyrant. Getting rid of him seems reasonable from a humanitarian point of view. That brings to mind two objections though: why intervene in Libya and not elsewhere, and what is the US plan for a post-Gaddafi Libya? In other words, it is not enough just to remove Gaddafi from power. We need to be sure that the country that emerges does not cause instability in the region and that those who claim power are actually better for Gaddafi. Obama had a decent explanation for why intervening in some countries was justified even when we cannot intervene in all.

What did Obama have to say about Libya after Gaddafi? Not much. He said that the US will hand over control of the operation to NATO on Wednesday. This sort of absolves him of the ability to give us a plan for Libya’s future. What I did not see though, was and end-game for the NATO operation. How will NATO ensure that post-Gaddafi Libya gets off to a good start? How can we be sure that the government that emerges will be better than that which was left behind? These questions were left unanswered.

In the end, I think Obama probably did a good job of increasing public support for his Libya intervention by making a powerful case against Gaddafi. But in the end, I am still not completely clear on the objectives. One part of the speech stands out:

Of course, there is no question that Libya - and the world - will 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. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.

Earlier in the speech, Obama says that Libya will remain dangerous as long as

Gaddafi remains in power. But what if non-military means (ie sanctions and political pressure) fail? After all, non-military means did not work with Saddam Hussein and he eventually was removed from power only by an invasion. If Gaddafi remains in power despite these non-military measures, then we have emboldened other dictators and made the situation in Libya no better. What is Obama prepared to do if non-military measures fail? That is perhaps the biggest question left.

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