Last night, nine days after U.S. military operations against Muammar Qadhafi began, President Barack Obama took to the stage at the National Defense University to finally explain his rationale for intervention in Libya's civil war. He described the brutality of the Qadhafi regime, the United States' interests in the conflict, the limited nature of U.S. military involvement, and the role the "international community" would undertake in finishing the job in Libya and rebuilding the country. It was a speech more appropriately delivered at the onset of Operation Odyssey Dawn, and unfortunately it's a speech that leaves a fundamental question unanswered: what's the way forward?
From the outset of operations in Libya, the best option was always "to minimize the commitment of the U.S. military, look after the best interests of Libya's civilian population, and limit the spread of terrorism and instability throughout the region." While the president promised last night to pursue such a course—the real challenge now begins—and there are still far too few details of how the White House will deliver on these promises.
The tasks going forward that must be accomplished are clear: (1) keeping Qadhafi isolated until he is brought to justice; (2) maintaining a military presence to keep Qadhafi's forces from going back on the offensive; and (3) identifying, supporting and sustaining a legitimate opposition that brings democracy to Libya, fights the spread of terrorism, and looks after the humanitarian needs and the human rights of the peoples under its control. We knew these before the president's speech—it is still no clearer on how they will be accomplished other than to turn the responsibility over to the "international community."
Though the president noted that on Wednesday NATO will assume greater responsibilities for operations in Libya, it remains that U.S. forces are still engaged in combat—and administration officials have acknowledged that will likely continue for months. The Administration has had ample time to develop its plans for the employment of U.S. forces and should be briefing leaders in Congress on them now so that a determination can be made if a resolution to employ force is now required or should be in the future.
While President Obama used last night's speech to explain (or justify) his Libya rationale, he also used it to take a shot at President George W. Bush's actions in Iraq, likely in an effort to assure his liberal allies that he is not his predecessor. "Regime change [in Iraq] took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya," Obama said. This dig on President Bush was gratuitous, unnecessary, and could well be a statement the president comes to regret as much as the "Mission Accomplished" banner draped on the carrier deck after the invasion of Iraq. The president has promised that the "international community" will do all the dirty work from here on out. Before the President takes a bow, he ought to be pretty confident he can deliver on this tall order.
There are some who are likening President Obama's actions in Libya to President George W. Bush's foreign policy—the Bush Doctrine. But unlike his predecessor, President Obama has not consulted Congress, has generally failed to communicate his mission, and has demonstrated a willingness to bow to the will of the "international community," rather than act in the best interests of the United States. The president last night bent over backwards to describe his strong leadership on Libya, but the commander in chief protests too much and has promised a great deal. It will be no small task to build a coalition that can keep Qadhafi isolated until he is brought to justice, prevent his forces from going on the offensive, and bring stability and democracy to Libya while preventing the spread of terrorism. That will take more than a speech and rhetorical reliance on the "international community." It will take real leadership to deliver on those promises.