We have found much to like in President Obama’s actions over the past week. He acted to stop a looming slaughter in Libya—a decision that, based on the number of lives it likely saved, must now be judged a clear success. Moreover, the air campaign against Qaddafi has significantly weakened one of the world’s most brutal dictators, providing momentum and hope to the rebels who are fighting to unseat him. This has not just been a hopeful development for Libya; it is also a hopeful development for the entire Middle East. Maybe, just maybe, the wave of revolution and reform that began in Tunisia and Egypt is not finished after all.
Last night, Obama finally spoke to the nation to explain why the United States was in Libya and what we hoped to accomplish there. Once again, we found much to like in his speech. It was the clearest articulation Obama has ever offered of the role he envisions for America in preventing mass crimes abroad. Obama did what he has so often shied away from doing in the past: He clearly asserted that the defense of human rights and human values is a priority of American foreign policy.
Still, it is the job of journalists to err on the side of pushing, not praising—and that duty is doubly strong when the president hails from our side of the political spectrum. And so, we have some questions for the president in the wake of the speech.
The most obvious question is how Obama can reconcile his stated desire to see Muammar Qaddafi leave office with his insistence that our military actions are not designed to foment regime change in Libya. Obama’s attempt to resolve this contradiction was his statement that he intended to usher Qaddafi out of power via “non-military means.” In part, Obama seemed to be reassuring the American people that there would be no U.S. ground troops in Libya—a position with which we agree. But was he also foreclosing the possibility that NATO might continue to use its airpower to aid the rebels in their advance toward Tripoli? If so, why? And how does this square with the fact that we currently appear to be waging, in the description of The New York Times, “an all-out assault on Libya’s military”?
Would it not be in our interest to see the rebels victorious? And if we can help them to achieve this from the air, why should we demur? Do we realistically believe that the rebels can topple Qaddafi without the aid of airpower? If we withdraw our airpower, and leave the rebels to fight without it, and if Qaddafi then manages to again push the rebels back, would we once again intervene to save them? If we are not prepared to do that, does this mean we would be prepared to watch a slaughter—essentially, the same slaughter that we were not prepared to watch a week ago? And if we are prepared to intervene again under those circumstances, wouldn’t we be better off continuing to provide the rebels with air cover as they advance toward Tripoli?
More questions along these lines: Are we going to arm the rebels? Does arming the rebels count as a “non-military means” of promoting regime change? Are we going to recognize the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya? If not, why not? Wouldn’t that provide the rebels with much-needed encouragement—and demonstrate to the world that we are serious about seeing Qaddafi gone?
Our own view is that we would like to see Qaddafi toppled. It is extremely difficult to envision a morally or strategically decent outcome in Libya if he is not. Fortunately, based on the news from Libya, it appears that the United States and its allies are trying to aid the rebels in achieving that goal. There would be a lot less confusion—and a lot fewer questions—if President Obama would simply say this.