as submitted to the local paper:
Critics found plenty of fault with President Obama’s March 28 speech on Libya, but the complaints fell into three basic categories: 1) there is no US national interest at stake; 2) Obama’s leadership has been lacking; and 3) the US has no exit strategy. The first point is a valid issue, but perhaps Libya represents another stage in the evolution of US foreign policy (more on that below). The second criticism is partisan political hooey. Failing to act quickly was criticized as weakness and dithering; acting without explicit Congressional approval was seen as being too afraid the rational for military action was weak; acting with international support was seen as outsourcing leadership to the UN. Obama was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. And the “no exit strategy” criticism is usually followed by a litany of unanswerable questions (such as, are the Libyan rebels really trustworthy). While no one can credibly predict the future, the question facing the US was whether US military action could prevent an atrocity (alternatively, would civilians have been slaughtered absent US action?). Every general knows no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, so why do we expect an “exit strategy” every time we deploy military forces? The US should be prepared to go in with a goal, supported by principles and military objectives, and start adjusting upon “contact with the enemy” (thank you, Moltke the Elder).
So is Obama’s Libyan adventure a good idea? On the ground, the situation is a mess, but consider the overall context:
First, US interests have evolved since 1989. Think about the young man being rescued in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, riding in a US Navy helicopter and seeing the mosque as the only building still standing in his water-wrecked village. That young man’s world was devastated and the two pillars of strength were the US Navy and the mosque. Seven years later and shortly after Libya devolved into chaos, the US military airlifted young Egyptians back to the safety of their home country. Again, these young men saw the US military – conducting a humanitarian mission – as an unmatched strength in a chaotic world. Maybe that is what we are evolving to: a military capacity so global and so immense we are compelled to undertake humanitarian missions…when we can. After the Cold War, we embarked on humanitarian missions without a military goal (Somalia) and regime change missions without a political plan (Iraq). Maybe we’re evolving: humanitarian missions with military assets that don’t need a military goal (Indonesia) and humanitarian missions with a stated military goal (established a no-fly-zone over Libya and protect civilians). We’re learning, we’re evolving.
The complaint about vital US interests is still valid – but these humanitarian missions are not about vital US interests. Put Libya in context – not US-centric context, but as part of early 2011 in the Middle East. If Benghazi fell to Ghadafi’s troop, how would that have played on the Arab street? Yes, US lives are at stake, so the US public matters more than the shabab smoking sheesha on Sharia 26 July in Cairo and the striped-pants sheikhs of the Arab League, but when the military risks are minimal and the emotional impact on the ground is massive, maybe the calculations shift – remember, this is not normal times, but we’re in the middle of a Middle East Arab Democratic Uprising. Would US warplanes be “on the right side of history” if they were idling on aircraft carriers a short flight from Benghazi while Ghadafi massacred civilians?
So when watching coverage of Libya, skip the 2012 election implications and uninformed chatter about al Qaeda. Consider instead the following: 1) Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program and may now lose a war against the West – what is the lesson now for Iran and others? 2) Libya’s air defenses were crushed in hours – is every smart general (and despot) now reexamining how they would fare against a UN-sanctioned No Fly Zone? 3) What do NATO airstrikes mean to a Yemeni/Syrian/Bahraini 20-year-old considering joining a democratic revolt…or an Islamist movement? These are the long-term considerations that matter most, even if they cannot be predicted.