In my latest column for The Week today, I use the Academy Award-winning film The King’s Speech to bookend my point about the incoherence of the Obama administration on its Libyan adventure. Like King George VI, Barack Obama needed to demonstrate leadership, inspire a nation, and give a clear account of why the nation’s forces had been sent to war after ten days of contradictions, incoherence, and silence from the administration. Unfortunately, Obama turned out to be no more coherent on Monday than George VI before his speech therapy:
Later in the same speech, though, the president then said that the United States couldn’t intervene to stop every government that threatened massacres and genocides. So why pick Libya? The president never answered that question. The “international community” was “mobilized,” Obama explained near the end of the address. The international community has certainly been mobilized over Sudan, which has conducted a years-long genocide — long enough for then-candidate Barack Obama to pledge American action to stop the massacre of civilians. Sudan didn’t get a no-fly zone, nor did Syria, Yemen, or Bahrain, whose governments have all attacked and killed dissenters in large numbers.
Nor was the president any clearer in his speech on a definition of victory, or an exit strategy. Obama insisted that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” and a violation of the United Nations mandate for the operation. Obama reiterated his demand that Gadhafi relinquish power immediately, though, and then said that the United States would act to “deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gadhafi leaves power.” If America does that while conducting military operations targeting Gadhafi’s military forces and assets, how is that any different than pursuing regime change as part of our overall war strategy? After all, it’s the same government doing it all at the same time. …
No ground troops would land in Libya, Obama promised, but that got contradicted the very next day by Admiral James Stavridis, the American serving as the military commander of NATO who now runs Operation Odyssey Dawn. Stavridis told Congress on Tuesday that “the possibility of a stabilization regime exists,” based on the model employed in the Balkans in the 1990s with ground troops protecting civilian centers. In fact, we still have 700 American soldiers stationed in Kosovo, as Stavridis himself reminded Congress, more than a decade after that conflict supposedly ended.
Finally, Obama insisted that he would not exceed the mandate to “protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners.” Less than 24 hours later, The Guardian reported that Hillary Clinton had “paved the way” to start shipping arms to the rebels, which exceeds the mandate Obama himself reiterated. Not only does it pull the United States into an alliance with forces seeking to overthrow Gadhafi — and thus effect the “regime change” that Obama specifically eschewed as a goal for Odyssey Dawn — it puts weapons into hands of people whom we don’t know well at all. At the same time, Clinton pressed for arms shipments to the rebels, Stavridis admitted to Congress that they had detected “flickers” of al Qaeda in the rebellion. One rebel commander, Abdul Hakim al Hasadi, fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan. We know this because we captured him there and handed him over to Libya a few years ago. Gadhafi let him go as part of a deal with radical Islamists in 2008.
ABC noted yesterday that the speech certainly described how we got involved in Libya, but not how we’re going to get out:
ABC News’ White House correspondent Jake Tapper points out that Obama left at least three critical questions unanswered: the endgame in Libya, the timetable and the price tag. (The Pentagon estimated the cost of the first week of U.S. military intervention at $600 million:http://abcn.ws/egzRqM)
As Obama noted, the U.S. will “support the aspirations of the Libyan people” and “work with other nations to hasten the day when Gadhafi leaves power,” but it’s unclear how much of a strain that will put on the American military or how long we will lend a supportive role. …
And on the question of whether it’s now U.S. policy to intervene everywhere there is violence and repression, the president put on the brakes in the same breath that he left the door open to future action.
Gaddafi’s forces retook a key port today, forcing the rebels to retreat in disarray again:
Libya rebels withdraw from oil town as international coalition continue discussions over legality of arming them
Troops loyal to the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, have retaken the key oil port of Ras Lanouf, forcing rebel fighters into a chaotic retreat under a barrage of tank and artillery fire.
Nato planes bombarded the regime troops as their outgunned opponents continued to fall back from positions taken earlier in the week, when they had advanced within 60 miles of Sirte, Gaddafi’s home city.
If Gaddafi doesn’t fall, then what next? How long will this operation continue, with its significant American contribution? We have no answers to those questions, and worse yet, no sense that the White House has any answers to them, either. The stuttering will apparently continue for the foreseeable future.