We’re not W: Obama White House explains U.S. military actions in Libya

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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With the Libyan war as backdrop, President Barack Obama has declared that America has a moral responsibility and a self-interest in advancing “universal rights” using U.S. military power and the political authority of international groups.

“Our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action … [because] we know that our own future is safer and brighter if more of mankind can live with the bright light of freedom and dignity,” the president told his audience at the National Defense University in Washington.

If successful in Libya, and if implemented elsewhere, this strategy shift would boost the power and status of transnational organizations, such as the U.N., and of the progressive activists that fill out the many non-profit groups in the Democratic Party’s base. It would provide a clear vision for the party’s affiliated foreign-policy professionals, many of whom felt sidelined when the Democratic Party united in 2007 and 2008 to attack President George W. Bush’s effort to advance the national interest by boosting democracy in the Arab countries.

At its core, one Arab observer told TheDC, Obama’s rhetoric is merely “We’re not Bush” that is intended to provide political cover for an unplanned intervention in another Muslim-majority country.

Obama’s emphasis on international approval is one of the few unambiguous elements in the administration’s depiction of the Libya intervention. White House spokesman Jay Carney, and Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, defended the intervention today at the White House briefing today, after which some reporters said that the briefing left them even more confused. “I know less than before the briefing,” said one national TV reporter.

A major contributor to the confusion, said numerous foreign policy experts, is the administration’s incoherent claim that U.S. aircraft are only defending civilians in rebel areas from Libyan tanks, yet are also striking Libyan tanks now defending territory advancing rebel forces.

Carney, McDonough and other administrations officials have offered only vague answers to reporters’ questions about how the new policy would shape possible U.S. intervention in other countries. The officials declined to provide any details on how the strategy would effect countries that are more important than Libya, such as Egypt, or that have a longer record of attacks on U.S. troops, such as Syria, or that have killed more of their own civilians, such as Sudan.

These contradictions were displayed in Obama’s NDU speech, where he declared that the air attacks were not intended to force Gaddafi from power, yet he also suggested that U.S. military force would help push the dictators from power. “We have intervened to stop a massacre, and we will work with our allies and partners as they’re in the lead to maintain the safety of civilians,” he sad, adding, “we will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power.”

Nor did officials explain how they plan to implement such policies without violating Obama’s promise not to deploy U.S. grounds troops, to scale back the use of U.S. airpower, and to preserve the shaky international coalition of competing and often rival, countries. If the coalition fails to win a clear victory, say Democratic foreign-policy experts, then the president’s call for collective humanitarian interventions will likely become politically toxic among voters in the United States.

The uncertainty is a natural consequence of how the administration’s new strategy was quickly assembled by the president and his immediate advisers. In a few short weeks, unrest in the Arab region extended to Libya, the Libyan government recklessly promised bloody revenge on its own citizens in the city of Benghazi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked with alarmed leaders in Europe, the United Nations and in Washington, while supporters of Bush’s democracy agenda called for intervention to help establish a democratic Libya.

Amid such rapidly changing circumstances, and with the prospect of having his foreign-policy ridiculed and poll-ratings damaged once Benghazi’s destruction was televised, the president abandoned his initial policy of neutrality and instead grasped the vague notion of internationally approved humanitarian intervention.

That idea, sometimes dubbed”Responsibility to Protect,” is popular among Democratic-affiliated professionals in the international-non-profit sector, and it provided a contrast to Bush’s pro-democracy explanations for intervening in Arab countries. “If we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world,” Obama declared at the NDU. “It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen.”

Still, Obama may ditch his new strategy of supporting internationally approved humanitarian interventions if an extended Libya battle damages his poll numbers.  In July 2007, he told an AP interviewer that the threat of genocide was not a sufficient reason for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq, during an interview in New Hampshire when he was seeking votes in the Democratic Party’s race for the presidential nomination. “Well, look, if [avoiding genocide] is the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife,” he told the interviewer. “We haven’t done that,” he said.