Monday morning, I posted to Facebook a five question checklist by which to measure President Obama’s speech on our military engagement in Libya.
Here is my analysis of how effectively the president answered those questions:
1. Does President Obama cite working with Congress more than working with the Arab League or the United Nations?
No. President Obama mentioned Congress just once in a 3,400 word speech. In contrast, he mentioned the United Nations Security Council and Arab league eight times. Furthermore, he dedicated a significant portion of his speech to the importance of cooperation between Western and Arab allies.
As I have said, I do think having allies in this effort is valuable, especially Arab ones. However, that desire must be appropriately balanced against the obligation the president has to respect Congress’ role, as well as the objectives of the mission at hand (more on this later).
President Obama made it remarkably clear in his speech that he places a much higher value on gaining the approval of the United Nations and the Arab League than he does on consulting Congress. By his own account, he committed the United States to action with a United Nations resolution before consulting with Congressional leaders, which he did only just before the bombing began.
The president also never seemed to consider the fact that allies – including Arab ones – could have been assembled faster in a way that bypassed the corruption of the United Nations.
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2. Does President Obama define replacing Qaddafi as our clear and explicit goal? Having said Qaddafi “needs to leave” that has to be the goal of this war.
No. In fact, he said quite the opposite, that our mission was to stop an imminent humanitarian catastrophe and that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.”
There are two problems with the president’s argument.
The first goes back to the disproportional value the president places on gaining the approval of the United Nations.
The president tried to make the case Monday night that our military engagement was justified in order to protect human life. Yet, the first reports of Qaddafi’s forces firing on the Libyan people, including with his air force, arose in late February. On March 5th the Libyan dictator’s army fired on unarmed protesters. On March 6th, his forces laid siege to the rebel-held town of Zawiyah.
The president, however, chose to wait almost two weeks, until March 19th, for a diplomatic consensus to emerge and resolutions to be passed in the U.N. Security Council before taking action.
The disturbing conclusion one can draw from President Obama’s actions is that he believes the special duty he spoke of, for the United States to not turn a blind eye to atrocities committed by dictators, ranks lower on his list of priorities than gaining approval from the United Nations to do something about them. He clearly favors muddled coalition consensus to moral leadership.
The second problem is that leaving Qaddafi in power will not stop the humanitarian crisis; it simply drives it underground. In the face of overwhelming military superiority, Qaddafi will most likely conclude that his best option is to retaliate in ways that cannot be stopped with air power. In fact, hearing the President of the United States publicly say he would not use the military to drive him out of power will almost certainly convince Qaddafi his best option is to dig in.
The United States is signaling that all he has to do is wait it out because the president has explicitly told Qaddafi that we are not going to force him to leave power. This leaves us with an open ended commitment to enforce a no-fly zone. The Iraq no-fly zone lasted a dozen years and did not remove Saddam Hussein from power.
The simple fact is that so long as Qaddafi remains in power, the people of Libya remain at risk of violence by their government. That’s why the president’s “mission accomplished” message rings so hollow.
3. Does President Obama pledge to send a request to Congress to pay for the cost of the war so our men and women in uniform are not asked to take it out of an already stretched budget while they are still engaged in two other wars and several small campaigns?
No. The president did not mention how this effort was going to be paid for. All indications are that it will come directly from the Pentagon’s budget, leaving our men and women in uniform who are already stretched with even fewer resources.
4. Does President Obama acknowledge the danger of Al Qaeda allies among the anti-Qaddafi forces and pledge to work for a moderate replacement government without extremist factions?
Partial credit. The president never acknowledged the likelihood of the presence of al-Qaeda within the rebel forces but did speak vaguely about diplomatic efforts to “support a transition to the future that the Libyan people deserve.” He then concluded his speech with a more specific commitment that the United States would find ways to help those around the world that believe in core American principles.
5. Does President Obama describe clearly the coalition command structure, the American role, and an allied commitment to defeat Qaddafi?
No. In fact, his explanation of handing off command to NATO made it seem as if NATO was some sort of separate country with its own military resources. In fact, NATO is simply a military alliance and command structure through which our allies conduct joint military operations. In practice, handing off control of the operation to NATO only means that command will be transferred from American General Carter Ham (Commander of U.S. Africa Command) to American Admiral James Stavridis (Supreme Allied Commander-Europe).
The president also failed to mention there is currently another engagement being commanded by NATO – the mission in Afghanistan. Of course, mentioning that would have exposed the smokescreen he was trying to create, since the United States continues to pay a heavy financial and human toll in Afghanistan every day.
The president’s long overdue explanation to the country was unsatisfactory in providing clear objectives for Libya. He did not explain why he valued the consensus of the international community over the Congress. His previously stated goal of removing Qaddafi is not in line with the goals of the coalition. He has placed the U.S. military in the position of refereeing a civil war under the auspices of a humanitarian effort without a definition of success. Lastly, the president cannot say today when our commitment to enforcing the no-fly zone might end.
What Should Have Been Done versus What Must Be Done Now
On February 24, I stated that U.S. military force was not necessary to remove Qaddafi. He was clearly in a weak position and we could have worked with our allies, particularly our Arab allies, who want to see a post-Qaddafi Libya, using quiet, covert, and indirect action to get rid of Qaddafi.
On March 3rd the president took that option off the table when he unambiguously declared that Qaddafi must step down from power and leave. This statement put the authority and prestige of the United States against a dictator, committing the United States to that objective. Anything less would be seen as a defeat for the United States.
In that new reality, I commented on March 7th that we should declare a no-fly zone in support of the president’s public commitment to oust the dictator.
By March 19th, however, the president had dropped his objective of getting rid of Qaddafi and adopted the U.N.’s objective of enforcing a no-fly zone for a humanitarian cease-fire. I said at that time I did not support using the U.S military if it was not for the expressed purpose of removing Qaddafi from power. I reiterated that prior to March 3rd, I would not have intervened militarily, but after March 3rd the only reason to use military force was to get rid of Qaddafi.
World events are becoming more complicated, intertwined, and fast paced. As such, our leaders need to be able to adjust their analysis and prescriptions as the facts dictate.
You can watch and read a complete timeline of my statements on Libya here.
P.S. Because this newsletter only comes once a week, I have been posting notes on my Facebook page to react to events as they happen. I also post videos of my speeches and provide updates from my travels. You can follow me on Facebook here.