President Obama’s decision to join our European and Arab allies in launching air assaults against Libyan forces has been criticized by some as an ad hoc, patched-together reaction rather than a carefully thought-out strategy. And to a degree, they’re right. Sometimes, an unexpected and quickly changing situation does not permit the careful application of strategy. Sometimes, you just have to play your cards as they are dealt, recalculating risk and reward as each card is flipped your way. I don’t know how this is going to play out, but so far Obama seems to be playing his hand rationally and cautiously.
Sure, intervening earlier against Gadhafi on the side of the Libyan rebels might have proved more effective in military terms, but it also would have put the United States in the position of trying to dictate outcomes in the Arab world. And not intervening at all, as some on the left still advocate, was a cruel option at best. Had the coalition not acted when it did last week, the world today would probably be sitting back and watching helplessly while a brutal Gadhafi massacred tens of thousands of his fellow Libyans.
Many of those now condemning Obama for acting would have been condemning him for not acting. That’s how these things go. As Obama himself noted in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.”
The fact that we are acting, somewhat reluctantly, at the urging of European and Arab allies also minimizes the geo-political risk. This is not an American initiative in which the United Nations and others are being strong-armed to support our policy; this is an international initiative which the United States has agreed to join as its most powerful member. There’s a world of difference between the two, not least because it has forced other countries to shed their infantilism and take responsibility, rather than leaving the tough decisions to Uncle Sam all the time and then grumbling about the outcome.
Obama’s critics also point out that we have no real idea how this will end, or even how we want it to end. Again, that’s accurate to a degree. However, Gadhafi himself has made it clear that he sees only two possible outcomes: victory or death. He has no third option — at this point, he can’t leave Libya to live elsewhere, and he knows it.
Publicly, coalition leaders are saying that Gadhafi is not a military target, but the smoking ruins of his personal compound in Tripoli offer more convincing evidence to the contrary. And at some point, if Western air power doesn’t take him out, his own commanders might. They now see their units being taken apart from the air, and there’s nothing they can do to defend themselves. The quickest way to make it stop is to make Gadhafi stop.
So we shall see.
– Jay Bookman
ADDENDUM: After all these years, the cynicism of Newt Gingrich continues to amaze and even disgust.
Until last week, the former speaker had been pressing Obama to intervene militarily in Libya and force Gadhafi’s ouster. “This is a moment to get rid of him,” he told Greta Van Susteren on Fox. “Do it. Get it over with.”
So what does he say now? As Politico reports:
“Newt Gingrich blasted the decision to attack Libya Sunday afternoon as “opportunistic amateurism without planning or professionalism.”
“It is impossible to make sense of the standard for intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity,” Gingrich said in a statement to POLITICO, his first public comments since President Barack Obama gave the go-ahead order on Saturday.
Iran and North Korea pose “vastly bigger threats” to American national interests, he argued. There are other countries in Africa where strongmen brutalize civilians, including Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
“Mugabe has killed more people, the Sudanese dictatorship has killed more people, there are a lot of bad dictators doing bad things,” Gingrich said.