President Obama's belated description on Monday of the United States' engagement in Libya did not - because it could not - say how the intervention to aid Libyan rebels will end. With the mercurial dictator Moammar Gadhafi clinging to power through the stronger arsenal of his military, the outcome simply remains unknown. Nor would his address have satisfied critics on both sides - those who think he should have done nothing at all, and those who believe the United States and the United Nations are doing too little to help the Libyan rebels oust Gadhafi. But the president did make a cogent and reasonable case for the military action in Libya, explaining both the rationale of the U.S. role under the approval of the United Nations, and the course ahead under the leadership, beginning today, of a NATO commander.
The slower-than-anticipated shift to NATO leadership may explain why Obama delayed his public address on the Libyan intervention so long, but it doesn't excuse his tardiness. He should have briefed the nation on his policy sooner; he was wrong to wait so long.
He accurately noted, however, that if the United States and its allies had waited one day longer before establishing a no-fly zone in Libya and taking action to protect its civilians, Gadhafi's vengeful military would have launched a massacre in the city of Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. Such a slaughter - Gadhafi had promised to show "no mercy" in what he said would be a house-to-house cleansing of the rebels and their supporters - would have stained the United Nation's conscience; reinforced the fragile regimes of other Arab despots who are under pressure to step down; and jeopardized the tentative governmental reforms now proceeding in Libya's neighbors, Egypt and Tunisia.
Another day's delay also would have undermined the credibility of the United Nations and the civil and human rights mandate that it recognized to protect Libyan civilians. With so much hanging in the balance, Obama said the United States, a half-dozen European NATO allies and two Arab governments correctly responded to the Libyan rebels' pleas to establish a no-fly zone and to restrict the ability of the Libyan military to operate.
The result has been dramatic. After being forced out of towns they had initially taken on the way west to Tripoli, the rebels have retaken two key oil-refinery towns and are now attempting another assault on the key junction town of Sirte. Under NATO's newly designated commander, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard of Canada, the organization's air campaign will continue to keep Libyan jets on the ground and to pummel the Libyan artillery and tank units that are whipping the rebels.
Without the United Nation's move to suppress the Libyan military, it seems clear that the rebels would be defeated and slaughtered. Even so, it is not at all certain that the rebels can dislodge Gadhafi or defeat his military. That suggests the dilemma that the United Nations, and the Libyan revolutionaries, must now face. One question left unanswered is how the United Nations will determine whether, and when, it is authorized to fire on Libyan military strongholds if the military is not actively attacking or threatening civilian centers.
Obama has rightly declared, moreover, that the United States, already entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan, would not put troops on the ground in Libya or play more than a supporting role in U.N.-NATO operations. Libyan rebels themselves, he fairly asserted, must do the fighting that is necessary to claim their freedom to remake their government.
Obama also broadly suggested why the United States and other United Nations leaders have not offered support for reform-minded demonstrators in other nations. Though he did not specifically mention the popular protest movements in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Jordan or the scores of victims killed by the regimes in the first three countries, he explained that a range of circumstances dictate how and when United Nations intervention is feasible and warranted.
Fair or not, there is, in fact, an argument to be made that the political, military, geographic and economic threshold for intervention makes it reasonable in some cases, but not in others. The case for intervention in Libya, a desert land with a mainly coastal population situated between Tunisia and Egypt, is decidedly different in most respects from, say, Syria, which also has a powerful ally in Iran.
The chief problem for NATO and the United Nations in Libya is how to dislodge Gadhafi quickly enough to avoid a lingering military stalemate. Though Obama didn't say so, the United States is reportedly putting a powerful aerial armada at work to batter the Libya military and its communications systems, while simultaneously conducting a psychological campaign to demoralize its soldiers and persuade them to desert Gadhafi.
Given Gadhafi's long treachery in supporting terrorism, murdering Americans on the Pan-Am jet blown up over Scotland and suppressing his own people, it's hard to fault any aspect of the U.S. role to help Libya's rebels. Obama's off-stage diplomatic effort to organize the U.N.-sanctioned intervention is also noteworthy. If the president did as well in informing the Congress and the American public about his policy, he would find more support.