“I hope you are not merely pretending to be wicked, while being secretly good. That would be hypocrisy.”
As written and delivered, President Obama’s speech on Libya was preposterous.
We intervened in the midst of somebody else’s civil war. We saved one side from losing, prevented another side from winning. Now we’re declaring “mission accomplished” in the middle of the battle. If the president’s message is taken seriously, he has exposed us to the resentment and revenge of one side, while failing to earn the gratitude of the other. If the president’s message is taken seriously, America’s goals in Libya were to perpetuate an ongoing civil war without achieving any stable end-state.
The optimistic interpretation of the president’s speech is that he was engaging in a little statesmanlike hypocrisy.
The optimistic interpretation is this:
“My fellow Americans. I attach great importance to the endorsement of the so-called international community. The UN Security Council Resolution authorized NATO to stop Qaddafi. Qaddafi is stopped. I recognize as well as you that this is a dangerous and untenable status quo. Don’t worry, it won’t be the status quo for long. We’re working now with diplomacy, with covert operations and with the threat of the resumption of force to persuade those around Qaddafi to overthrow and kill him. And of course the French and the British are still waging war. Qaddafi’s time will be short. When that time ends, we’ll pretend to be totally surprised. Who us? Responsible? Oh no – we were just enforcing a no-fly zone.”
The pessimistic interpretation is that the president means what he says – that he thinks his mission stops at freezing some dividing line between warring Libyan factions and leaving somebody – NATO? the UN? – to police that line for weeks, months, maybe years to come.
I’d like to believe the optimistic scenario. But there are warning signs here that the pessimistic is more plausible. The most ominous of the warning signs was his comment about Iraq. Why reargue that war now? Answer: to justify cutting short the commitment to Libya. Obama’s problem is that the moment to take that position was before the Libyan intervention. If he truly did not think the outcome in Libya mattered – if he had been willing to live with a Qaddafi victory – then he could have hung back and allowed events to proceed. But having committed American power to the war, he committed America inescapably to the outcome. If that outcome is a divided, war-torn country, President Obama will not escape responsibility because he only used American airpower. And if he truly is haunted by a determination not to repeat the Iraq war of 2003, he needs to remember that America won itself few friends with its indefinite policing and punishing of Iraq in the 1990s.