A call for Congress to explain the Libya mission

In his March 28th address to the nation, the president said that America had intervened only because “we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale.” U.S. and coalition troops established a no-fly zone, struck Libyan government forces approaching the major, rebel-held city of Benghazi, helped the opposition drive Libyan troops out of neighboring Ajdabiya and “targeted tanks and military assets that had been choking off towns and cities.”

With the government’s “deadly advance” halted, the U.S. would yield the “lead” to “our allies and partners” but continue to play a “supportive role.” Obama emphasized that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” While Libya would remain a “dangerous place,” until Colonel Gadhafi stepped down from power, the U.S. would pursue regime change only through “non-military means” including an arms embargo, economic sanctions and aid to the opposition.

Within days evidence accumulated that U.S. and the NATO-led coalition’s military objectives did indeed include regime change. For example, in response to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)'s skepticism about displacing Gadhafi by non-military means, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates promised that the scale of attacks would be such that: “His military is going to have to face the question of whether they are prepared over time to be destroyed by these air attacks or whether they decide it’s time for him to go.” Gates further observed, “So there’s clearly a lot of people across Libya that are ready to rise up against this guy. And if we can sufficiently degrade his military capacity, it seems to me this gives them the opportunity to do that”.” And it was revealed that Obama had earlier authorized covert military and other support to the rebels (although only overt “non-lethal” assistance has thus far flowed).

Although the U.N. Security Council authorized an operation confined to “all necessary measures” to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack,” we have actually seen a broader campaign to destroy Libyan forces and depose Gadhafi.

It is only in this context that one can fully understand the attacks on Gadhafi’s compound and office complex, and now on his son’s residence (even if they also contain some “command and control” facilities), on barracks, military stores and brigade headquarters in Tripoli relatively far from the fighting, and on the state television network. It is why the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can report that the coalition has destroyed 30-40% of the capabilities of Libyan military forces, and why administration and allied officials are now saying they will  “step up attacks on the palaces, headquarters and communication centers” that Gadhafi “uses to maintain his grip on power in Libya.”

Despite these facts, the Obama administration continues to assert that it does not seek regime change through military means. This disingenuousness seems to be driven by political expediency.

As the president’s speech indicated, a commitment to overthrow Gadhafi would “splinter the coalition,” increase the risks of American “boots on the ground” or civilian casualties from the air, and produce higher costs for what experts anticipate being a turbulent and violent aftermath. Yet such consequences would be unpopular with the majority of Americans, especially those in his base constituency. They remember the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq, no longer believe the long war in Afghanistan is worth fighting, and are enduring major cuts in federal spending that exempt America’s three wars.

As Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) told Secretary Gates a month ago, “We clearly are involved in regime change in this issue, and in the evolution...of a very unpredictable political scenario” and “hard” decisions lie ahead.  But these difficult choices are being obscured - and perhaps pre-empted - by the administration’s less than forthright approach.

If the U.S. wants to break the developing military stalemate, it could be constrained by Obama’s previous exclusion of American ground forces, aversion to civilian casualties and adoption of a “supporting” role. If the U.S. chooses instead to seriously take up the Security Council’s demand for a cease-fire and U.N. and African Union-facilitated “dialogue” leading to political reforms (and likely the withdrawal, sooner or later, of Qadaffi), it would require negotiations with the Libyan Government as well as the opposition. 

But that could look like the U.S. was backing down from its earlier conduct of the war, even if the other sanctions against the regime were maintained. And if or when the regime eventually implodes, the U.S. response to developing chaos could be constrained by the president’s promise of lower costs through multilateralization.

Webb was right in calling for “some sort of debate and understanding here in the government, rather simply than having to follow the prerogatives of the administration."

In summing up his presidential campaign during a TV infomercial shortly before the 2008 election, Obama stated, “I will not be a perfect president. But I will promise you this – I will always tell you what I think and where I stand.”  Yet on Libya it appears that the president has been willing to jeopardize his trademark reputation for political honesty (“Change You Can Believe In” was his campaign slogan) for the sake of short-term political convenience.

Stephen R. Weissman is a former staff director of the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Africa and author of A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy.


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