Thanks to Western intervention and imposition of a no-fly zone, Libyan rebels who a week ago seemed doomed to indiscriminate massacre by Col. Moammar Gadhafi are now pressing their assault on the town of Sirte, the dictator’s hometown.
In a few minutes, President Obama is scheduled to brief the nation about our goals in implementing the no-fly zone over Libya, and the limits of our commitment there.
There are two ways to discuss the topic, as a matter of foreign policy and as a matter of domestic politics. Let’s deal first with the politics. As a newpoll by the Pew Research Center reports public attitude:
“Nearly half of Americans (47%) say the United States made the right decision in conducting air strikes in Libya while 36% say it was the wrong decision. Fully one-in-six (17%) express no opinion.
On balance, however, the public does not think that the U.S. and its allies have a clear goal in taking military action in Libya. Just 39% say the U.S. and its allies have a clear goal, while 50% say they do not.
Notably, most people do not view the United States as the lead actor in the military operation. Fully 57% say that the United States “is just one of a coalition of countries” involved in the military mission; far fewer (35%) say the United States “is leading the military action.”
There is little indication that views of the Libyan military operation are breaking along political lines. About half of Republicans (54%) and Democrats (49%) say the decision by the U.S. and its allies to launch airstrikes was right. Among independents, 44% see the airstrikes as the right decision, while nearly as many (41%) say they are the wrong decision.”
Nobody, including Obama, knows what will happen next in Libya. That’s why so many of the potential GOP presidential candidates have been so noncommittal about the policy. Nobody, not even the Libyans, have any real idea how this will turn out.
However, we do have a pretty good idea what would have happened without Western intervention, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. Thousands and more likely tens of thousands of Libyans would have slaughtered by their own government for daring to have dreamed of something better than dictatorial rule by a crazed despot. Here at home, many of those now sitting on the fence watching would have been condemning Obama as weak and feckless for standing by while the carnage played out.
I don’t know what the president is going to say, but I do find the conjecture about some kind of “Obama Doctrine” emerging from this incident rather odd. I don’t see a doctrine playing out here; I see a rather simple practical calculus at work: How much can you acccomplish, and at what risk? For a relatively small investment — certainly a far smaller investment than an eight-year occupation of Iraq that cost thousands of American lives and a trillion dollars — we are creating the conditions in which Libyans will have a chance — a chance — to create a better future for themselves.
U.S. attitudes toward interventions are changing, and probably for the better. But if you have a chance to save thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of lives, and create an opportunity for many thousands more, at relatively tiny risk to yourself, basic decency says you take that chance.
– Jay Bookman