Reasonable people can differ on whether it makes sense for the United States to pursue military action in Libya. As someone who had been of two minds on the matter, I found the President’s speech on Monday evening persuasive on balance. One factor in particular tipped the scale for me: President Obama seemed convinced, and Administration officials have confirmed as much, that two weeks ago, a large-scale massacre in Benghazi, on the order of tens or hundreds of thousands of lives, was imminent.
The rest of the criteria for action were already lined up in my mind. I had, in fact, been admiring the way the Administration was laying the groundwork for the campaign, even if they were late in explaining to Americans what they were doing.
First, the Administration assembled a wide and legitimate coalition. NATO, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the United Nations all endorsed the campaign. It took time and no minor amount of hassle to secure this group. Conservatives wailed about dithering and delays. Rebels died. But this broad base of support was and is critical. America is swimming in red ink, and military actions are not free. There is no good reason that the American taxpayer should foot the entire bill of an action that benefits the region and the world.
Also, if Iraq taught us nothing else, it is that wars never end cleanly or the way we think they will. America should never be alone holding the bag when the last gunshots are fired. The Libya coalition is filled with other countries that, while they may be extraneous during military operations, will be very useful both in funding and executing in the years, perhaps decades, of peacekeeping and/or nation-building that will undoubtedly come next.
The coalition also helps America defend against the accusation of extremists who would cite the Libya intervention as more evidence of American imperialism. Even though it criticized the coalition action once it began, the endorsement of the Arab League nonetheless helps allay suspicions in the region that the West is in it for the oil, or because we like killing Muslims. Every bit of legitimacy helps.
President Obama also secured a sweeping United Nations mandate. As the largest player in the international system, and its biggest beneficiary, the United States should go out of its way to uphold international law, particularly when we are trying to hold countries like Iran to it. Most large emerging powers (democratic and not) object to the Libya action, but they abstained from the UN Security Council vote rather than voting no.
In his speech, President Obama left no doubt that the United States has led the international community, but it is not the kind of leadership we are used to seeing. France and Britain were first out of the gate in the military operation. This was a brilliant move on the Administration’s part, though it made some conservatives very uncomfortable that America was not in front, leading the charge. Leaders like Sarkozy seek every opportunity for chest-thumping. Why not throw our close allies this political bone? If it means France is fully bought-in and French taxpayers will share the bill, fine. Leadership does not mean having all the ideas, taking all the risks, putting up all the cash, and getting all the credit. True leadership is convincing others to do those things.
To summarize, the Libyan crises has met a plethora of conditions for sensible American military action based on humanitarian reasons:
Ability to intervene with minimal risk and cost? Check.
Clear, limited goals? Check.
Large international coalition, including closest allies as well as countries in the region? Check.
Other countries willing to get out in front? Check.
Legal and political mandate from the United Nations? Check.
Endorsement by regional organizations? Check.
Vague strategic interest? Check.
Finally, likelihood of a large-scale human catastrophe in the absence of intervention? Check.
Some argue that this checklist comprises an Obama Doctrine. These conversations remind me of my days in the Clinton National Security Council during the Kosovo intervention when the media debated a Clinton Doctrine of very similar dimensions. I like the idea of doctrine as much as the next analyst, but I’ve become convinced that they are not very useful in today’s world. Any sensible foreign policy doctrine now is either so vague it cannot provide any real guidance, or so specific that it will apply to only a handful of decisions of the hundreds that an Administration must consider.
So, shining and solitary example of the Obama doctrine or not, so far, so good on the Libyan operation. But the reason I was on the fence to begin with is—now what? Though the goals for the military campaign are clear and limited, our political goals are not. The President and many other leaders have made it clear that they want Gadhafi out. I’m not convinced we have checked the “clear exit strategy” box that should be on the list above. The temptations will be great at every turn to escalate our involvement, military and otherwise.
The no-fly zone may well not oust Gadhafi from power. But if it comes down to this choice, and I hope it does not, I would rather see Gadhafi remain in Tripoli, with all the power of a spider trapped under a glass, than send in the massive numbers of U.S. ground troops it would take to remove him. I made the same argument against our invasion in Iraq—we’ve got this dictator under our thumb. That should be good enough.
Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. She is the author of “After Hegemony” in our Winter 2011 issue.