Shadow Government

Obama's Libya speech: satisfactory, but not satisfying

President Obama gave his first, but hopefully not the last, major address on events in Libya (with a gesture or two to the broader Middle East). The text was solid, not soaring, which befitted the occasion. The delivery was fine, even passionate at points. The speech was serviceable in laying out Obama's rationale and why he is convinced he picked the absolute goldilocks position between various "false choice" (his words) extremes that he rejected.

Asking myself the questions I posed, I come away with mixed answers:

1. The president talked plainly and persuasively about the inputs and why he ordered them. But he avoided talking about outcomes. He said the administration has "fulfilled the pledge" it made to the American people. And he reiterated the point "So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: the United States of America has done what we said we would do." (Note to research assistants: who in the world doubted the U.S. capacity? I heard many doubts about will, but I can't imagine there is anyone who has even the faintest familiarity with American military power who doubted our capacity to do what we have done, namely establish air supremacy over Libya and conduct precision strikes against vehicles.) But these are all the inputs. He is right to note that we deserve credit for delivering on the inputs, but strategy is about accomplishing outcomes.  No one expects the outcomes to be achieved already, but I did expect more discussion about what outcomes the military must achieve for him to declare mission accomplished.

2. Alas, the president only talked about optimistic scenarios. The obligatory gestures about a "difficult task"  -- "Libya will remain dangerous..."; "Forty years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions" -- barely scratched the surface of what could go wrong here. I did not expect the president to run down the "dirty dozen" list of bad things that might happen. That is the work of strategic planning shops. But I did expect more steeling of the American public for possible adverse developments. And I did expect more discussion of why not intervene in other cases that looked, on the surface, like they might match the Libyan case on the atrocity scale.

3. The speech was not particularly candid, though it was clever. Comparing the weeks of confusion in Libya to the months of confusion in the Balkans made a fair point: the Obama administration and our European partners have not dithered as did Clinton and the Europeans back in the day. The president's timeline, however, gave the impression of a direct march of resolve from the moment the American ex-patriates were safely evacuated until the air sorties began ten days ago.  That is not quite how it happened. Likewise, he quite effectively skewered the two extreme positions of doing nothing or conducting a massive invasion with ground troops à la Iraq. But I was left scratching my head trying to figure out who he is rebutting here: "Contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves." I can't think of anyone, not even the most fervent America-first-hawk who would endorse that nonsense. What those with experience in the policymaking world do recognize -- and what is missing from the president's speech, quite candidly -- is that multilateralism brings with it all sorts of collective action problems that can frustrate mission accomplishment.  

4. I think the President and the speechwriters were quite sensitive to the charge that President Obama adopts too aloof an approach to his commander-in-chief duties. The speech and speechcraft (complete with steely gaze into the camera at just the right moments) was compelling at this point:

As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than keeping this country safe. And no decision weighs on me more than when to deploy our men and women in uniform. I have made it clear that I will never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally when necessary to defend our people, our homeland, our allies, and our core interests."

I detected real passion when he talked about the urgent need to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi -- indeed, in some ways, I thought it even more passionate than his 2009 speech announcing the Afghanistan surge. I know the speech was intended to convince me that the president is both realistic and resolved about what he must accomplish. Perhaps it is so.  I certainly hope it is so.

Of course, there are other interesting parts to the speech that warrant further reflection (and perhaps later comment). He wisely avoided saying much about his larger strategy to confront the regional challenges -- it is evident they are still feeling their way and better to get the strategy right before giving the big strategy speech. The president made some startling claims about how the Libyan cause was squarely in our interests, recalling the Clinton-era effort to make assertive multilateralism in the pursuit of humanitarian interventions a core pillar of our national security. 

But perhaps the most surprising and, to my ears, the most satisfying moment was this one:  

To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and -- more profoundly -- our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

That is a fairly artful embrace of American exceptionalism and of the doctrine of preemption. I wonder if that will become the Obama doctrine, too.

Shadow Government

Obama should draw the line at Syria

President Barack Obama's administration faces a major dilemma as the toll of protesters killed by the Assad regime in Syria continues to rise. Last week, administration spokespeople were asserting that the difference between the need for intervention in Libya and Washington's relatively restrained reaction to the killings in major Syrian cities was due to the relatively small number of those who were killed in the latter. Not surprisingly, as the protests have gained momentum, so has the ruthlessness of the regime's response. Will the United States do more than issue verbal condemnations? More importantly, should it do more?

Washington already has its hands full in the Middle East. The Libya operation is becoming increasingly demanding on American resources. Should A-10 tank killers be deployed to the Libyan theater, as the press is currently reporting, the United States faces the risk that the Libyans could score a lucky hit against one of these deadly but relatively slow-moving aircraft. Even more important, the potential presence of these aircraft underscores the degree to which "mission creep" has already taken hold of administration planners, just weeks after the operation was launched. After all, it is a very long stretch to argue that A-10s are being called in to protect civilians.

In an environment in which American forces are engaged in three Muslim countries, the last thing Washington needs is to be verbally trap itself in a situation in which pressure for yet more military action begins to mount. It has been suggested that Washington can rid Syria of Assad "on the cheap" -- through even more vigorous condemnations; by getting the Arab League to condemn the Syrian regime; by pressing for sanctions on the part of the European Union; and by referring Bashar al-Assad for prosecution as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. None of these suggestions is likely to accomplish very much, however. No amount of condemnation will dissuade the Assad regime from doing whatever it takes to preserve its power. And no such condemnations will come from an Arab League that already shows signs of regret for opening the door for a far broader American and Western military intervention than the conservative Arab leaders had anticipated.

Moreover, nothing could be more counterproductive than to refer Assad to the ICC. Doing so would give him no option but to fight to the finish, After all, his only other alternative would be a trial in The Hague. Assad has no desire to be another Milosevic, and to share the latter's fate.

More importantly, in the exceedingly unlikely event that Assad were prepared to buckle before the protesters, his Alawi supporters would not permit him to do so. The Alawis who dominate the Syrian regime know full well that the country's overwhelming Sunni majority not only resents their rule, but considers them to be heretics. Recall that Assad's father had to get a special fatwa from a Shiite cleric proclaiming that the Alawis were indeed Muslims. (In fact, Bashar's grandfather actually supported the notion of a Zionist state alongside Maronite and Alawi enclaves along the Mediterranean coast!)

A successful Sunni revolt could well mean a major and bloody purge of the Alawis. At best, there will be civil war; at worst, a massacre. Will Washington's humanitarians then shout for intervention? And, if Alawis are being massacred, on whose side would they wish to intervene?

It is not even clear that the removal of Assad and his henchmen will benefit Israel. Syria was just as implacable a foe of the Jewish state prior to Hafez al-Assad's ascent to power in the 1960s. The only difference was that during the period 1948 until 1971, when the elder Assad formally took control of the country, Syria was an especially unstable country, ruled in rapid succession by a series of military and civilian dictators.

An unstable Syria might be tempted, as neither Assad pere nor fils were, to attack Israel on the Golan front, or to push Hezbollah into a war that Damascus would then widen, and that could involve Jordan, Iran and the Palestinians as well. The resulting conflagration would set back even further the already remote prospects for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum and an Arab-Israeli peace.

It is high time that Washington realized it simply cannot solve all the problems in the Middle East at one time. It has been hard enough over the years for American administrations to solve any problem in that troubled region. Indeed, administrations of all stripes find it hard to concentrate on more than one foreign policy crisis or contingency at any one time; Obama now has three in the Middle East and Central Asia, with Libya still capable of metastasizing into a full-blown war.

Once that war is over, the demands for "reconstruction" will begin, despite the fact that Libya is drowning in oil. The Europeans, strapped for resources and still suffering from the aftershocks of the E.U. financial crisis, are unlikely to come forward with funds, as are the Gulf Arabs. Will the United States then take on another nation-building role?

Three contingencies and two major nation building exercises, whether in one region or worldwide, are more than enough for any administration to handle. The last thing the United States needs is to get enmeshed in Syria's troubles. We have enough on our plate; it is time to restrain our interventionist appetites.

ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images