Sunday, March 27, 2011

Obama Has Some Explaining to Do

In Monday's NY Times, Ross Douthat poses some questions that Mr. Obama had better address in his televised speech this evening:
What are our military objectives? The strict letter of the United Nations resolution we’re enforcing only authorizes the use of air power to protect civilian populations “under threat of attack” from Qaddafi’s forces. But we’re interpreting that mandate as liberally as possible: our strikes have cleared the way for a rebel counteroffensive, whose success is contingent on our continued air support.

If the rebels stall out short of Tripoli, though, how will we respond? With a permanent no-fly zone, effectively establishing a NATO protectorate in eastern Libya? With arms for the anti-Qaddafi forces, so they can finish the job? Either way, the logic of this conflict suggests a more open-ended commitment than the White House has been willing to admit.

Who exactly are the rebels? According to our ambassador to Libya, they have issued policy statements that include “all the right elements” — support for democracy, economic development, women’s rights, etc. According to The Los Angeles Times, they have filled what used to be Qaddafi’s prisons with “enemies of the revolution” — mostly black Africans, rounded up under suspicion of being mercenaries and awaiting revolutionary justice. According to The Daily Telegraph in London, their front-line forces include what one rebel commander calls the “patriots and good Muslims” who fought American forces in Iraq.

Perhaps Obama can clarify this picture. The rebels don’t need to be saints to represent an improvement on Qaddafi. But given that we’re dropping bombs on their behalf, it would be nice if they didn’t turn out to be Jacobins or Islamists.

Can we really hand off this mission? Officially, this is a far more multilateral venture than was, say, the invasion of Iraq. But as Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin points out, when it comes to f direct military support, “Obama’s ‘coalition of the willing’ is smaller than any major multilateral operation since the end of the Cold War.” Officially, too, the United States is already stepping back into a supporting role. But as Wired’s Spencer Ackerman argues, the difference between a “high” United States involvement and a “low” military commitment may prove more semantic than meaningful.

Obama has stated that America’s involvement will be measured in “days, not weeks.” With one week down already, is this really plausible? And anyway, how responsible is it to commit American forces to a mission and then suggest, as a senior administration official did last week, that “how it turns out is not on our shoulders”?

Is Libya distracting us from more pressing American interests? While we’ve been making war on Qaddafi’s tin-pot regime, our enemies in Syria have been shooting protesters, our allies in Saudi Arabia have been crushing dissidents, Yemen’s government is teetering, there’s been an upsurge of violence in Israel, and the Muslim Brotherhood seems to moving smoothly into an alliance with the Egyptian military. Oh, and we’re still occupying Iraq and fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and trying to contain Iran.

Last week, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg rank-ordered Mideast trouble spots that “demand more American attention than Libya.” He came up with six: Afghanistan-Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen’s Qaeda havens, post-Mubarak Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One can quibble with Goldberg’s ordering but not his broader point. While we intervene in Libya, what is our Egypt policy? Our Yemen policy? Our Syria policy? With the entire Middle East in turmoil, does it make sense that Washington is focused so intently on who controls the highway between Ajdabiya and Surt?

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