Obama’s Bush moment

President Obama had a Bush moment last night. But I’m not talking about George W. Bush. I’m referring to his father. Obama’s explanation of why he won’t back the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi under a U.N. resolution was all about the limits of war by committee — the same constraints that prevented the military coalition put together by George H.W. Bush from going all the way to Baghdad in 1991.

It is often said that G.W. Bush decided to topple Saddam Hussein to make up for his father’s “failure" to overthrow the Iraqi dictator in the first Gulf War. In his speech last night, Obama pointed out that regime change in Iraq “took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.

“Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake," Obama said. So the president is being deliberately cautious, to hold his coalition together — just like Bush Senior was forced to do in 1991. At that time, the U.S. secured a strong U.N. resolution calling for “all necessary means” to roll back the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This time, a U.N. resolution provides for “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from slaughter.

Ironically, in the first Gulf War, it was French President Francois Mitterrand who was queasy about regime change. Bush Senior knew — in particular after the bombing of an Iraqi convoy on the road to Basra, which became known as the “highway of death” — that his allies would not invoke the U.N. mandate to include regime change. This time, the French under their impulsive president, Nicolas Sarkozy, are way out ahead of the U.S. and have already recognized the rebel opposition as a government in waiting.

Obama said last night: “If we tried to overthrow Gadhafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.”

But what does come next? This is the question that Obama failed to answer in detail. He wants Gadhafi to go, but through “non-military means.” He spoke about assisting the opposition, but does that mean arming the rebels when a U.N. arms embargo is in force? And where else might the U.S. intervene if this intervention were ordered to “stop a massacre” in Benghazi?

In the case of Iraq, it took eight years to get rid of a tyrant. Although Obama was successful in putting together a coalition in Libya — it took more than a year in Bosnia under Bill Clinton, he recalled — there is no guarantee that the military gains against Gadhafi’s forces are irreversible. And as George H.W. Bush discovered, war by committee is messy.

Libya is no Iraq, Obama said last night. Unfortunately, it might be.

More in Foreign Policy

Lynchpin of Obama’s immigration agenda is beyond weak

Read more »