I have been critical in recent days of President Obama for lack of leadership on Libya but I part company with some of my colleagues on this blog in that I sense this is changing. True, he waited for the UN Security Council to come together before acting in Libya, thereby losing vital time. But the legitimacy the UN confers should not be underestimated—much as it may pain me (and other critics of the UN) to admit it. Having the Arab League on board is also a plus. There is even talk that Qatar, UAE, and Jordan may participate in a military campaign against Qaddafi—good news if true, although, as autocracies (if relatively benign ones), they are hardly shining exemplars of the “new Middle East.” Most important of all, France and Britain appear prepared to take on a major part of the military burden.
All in all, I give Obama credit for assembling an impressive coalition, and avoiding a Russian or Chinese veto at the Security Council. The question is what he does with the authority of Resolution 1973.
In his public statement today Obama sounded resolute—but he also set out fairly narrow goals and did not reiterate his previous call for Qaddafi’s ouster. Qaddafi has said he is imposing a ceasefire. What if his forces pull back from eastern Libya? Does that mean we won’t impose a no-fly zone or mount air strikes? If so that would leave Qaddafi in control of a substantial part of the country where he could continue the human rights abuses that are rightly condemned by the United Nations—and could force the U.S. to undertake a lengthy and costly military involvement to make sure that Qaddafi stands by his promises not to march into Benghazi. Much simpler and surer to do everything possible, short of dispatching ground troops, to topple Qaddafi. I have previously noted that such steps would include a no-fly zone combined with air strikes on Qaddafi’s ground forces and also training and arms for the rebel forces.
That represents a substantial commitment on our part, and comes with attendant risks. No doubt there is still a faction in the administration hoping that a few symbolic moves will be enough to get Qaddafi to cease and desist. But our goal should not be simply a temporary cessation of the violence. A lasting solution requires Gaddafi to be gone, and that won’t be easy to achieve. We may have a real fight on our hands. I only hope that the administration is ready for that.