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Doyle McManus: Obama's nuanced call to arms in Libya

The Obama administration is having a hard time clarifying its intentions.

March 27, 2011|Doyle McManus

The Obama administration says the goals of its bombing campaign in Libya are crystal clear, but it has tied itself in knots trying to explain them.

This isn't a war, White House spokesman Jay Carney said last week, "it's a time-limited, scope-limited military action."

"What we are doing is enforcing a [United Nations] resolution that has a very clear set of goals, which is protecting the Libyan people, averting a humanitarian crisis and setting up a no-fly zone," said national security aide Ben Rhodes. "Obviously that involves kinetic military action, particularly on the front end. But … we are not getting into an open-ended war, a land invasion in Libya."

Clear enough for you?

In fact, Rhodes' explanation was clearer than it sounds — because it showed where the administration's well of clarity runs dry.

Here's the problem: President Obama's strategy is clear, but only for the short term — the days, not weeks, he allotted for U.S.-led airstrikes to stop Moammar Kadafi's army from overrunning rebel-held cities.

But that's only an immediate, tactical goal — a stopgap.

After that? Not so clear.

Some officials are candid enough to acknowledge that. "It's very uncertain on how this ends," Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week.

Obama does have a long-term goal in Libya: He'd like to see Kadafi fall and be replaced by a democratic regime. But he hasn't settled on a strategy to get there.

Officials hoped the air raids might cause the collapse of Kadafi's regime, perhaps by prompting some of the dictator's military officers to turn on him. They still hope the combination of a no-fly zone, economic sanctions and the rebellion in eastern Libya will undermine Kadafi over time.

But in one point of clarity, Obama and his aides say it will have to happen without U.S. military involvement on the ground. On that count, they are clearer about what they won't do — "a land invasion in Libya" — than what they will.

One reason for the muddled message is the minor diplomatic deception behind the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the airstrikes. The Security Council approved military action to protect civilians, not to help rebels overthrow Kadafi. The United States and its allies interpreted the mandate broadly enough to include attacks on Kadafi's headquarters under the category of "protecting civilians." Both Russia, a member of the Security Council, and Turkey, a member of NATO, promptly caught on and complained.

That explains the tortuous, legalistic rhetoric from those poor White House spokesmen. As George Orwell wrote in his great 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns … to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

But the problem runs deeper than public relations or even diplomacy. By joining France and Britain in attacking Kadafi's army, Obama has launched the United States into a limited war — and limited wars often turn into long-term headaches.

They take longer than expected. They have unforeseen consequences. And, if they fall short of their goals, they tempt policymakers to escalate far beyond their original intentions.

The likeliest danger Obama faces in Libya, paradoxically, is success at achieving the immediate goal of protecting civilians. If the airstrikes prompt Kadafi to disengage his troops but don't push him out of power, we will be the part-owners of a no-fly, no-drive zone in the middle of a tribal civil war. Our last no-fly zone, over Iraq, started the same way, when Saddam Hussein's troops were pushed out of Kuwait under a U.N. resolution that didn't authorize his removal from power. That one lasted 12 years and ended with a ground invasion.

And if Kadafi's ground troops grind down the disorganized rebels without using aircraft or tanks, will the United States, Britain and France stand by and allow it? That won't be easy to watch; the Obama administration would probably be wracked by the same kind of debate that led to its last decision to intervene.

Obama may be a reluctant warrior, but we're starting to see a pattern. He ran for office as an antiwar candidate, but he extended his own deadline for withdrawal from Iraq. He reluctantly sent thousands of new troops to Afghanistan, then promised that the U.S. military commitment there would extend through 2014. Now he has launched a new intervention in Libya — after initial reluctance, again.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accused Obama last week of being "tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced." Timid? Hardly. But Romney is right on one count: Obama is sending troops into battle to the call of a very nuanced trumpet.

That doesn't mean that the decision to intervene was wrong. As White House aides point out, if the United States and its allies hadn't launched this operation, we'd probably be reading about massacres right now.

But it does mean that Obama still has hard decisions to make. What's the long-term goal, and what is he willing to risk achieving it? If Kadafi clings to power, what will Obama do to make good on his declaration that the dictator must go? Those are the most important questions, and in addressing them, he has offered precious little clarity.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

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