Max is correct. A great public mystery is descending on events in Libya: Why is America there? Is it strictly to protect rebels from Muammar Qaddafi or to topple his regime altogether? Weeks ago, President Obama said, “Let me just be very unambiguous about this. Colonel Qaddafi needs to step down from power and leave…. It is good for his people. It’s the right thing to do. It’s time for Qaddafi to go.” Today, ambiguity reigns. Over the weekend, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked on Meet the Press if Qaddafi could retain his rule when all is said and done. “That’s certainly potentially one outcome,” he said. At the same time, reports were streaming in with news of the leader’s compound in Tripoli being targeted by allied missiles.
One gets the sense the Obama administration has confused mission constraint with mission murk. Americans want to know we won’t be bogged down endlessly in Libya. They are not reassured to hear we are engaged there for an ill-defined purpose. Once the U.S. commits to military action, all options cannot remain on the table.
There is one outcome that would constitute success: Qaddafi’s exit from the world stage. As Max writes in the Weekly Standard, “[Qaddafi] has already threatened to retaliate against ‘all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea.’ That is no idle threat, given that in the past he has been responsible for numerous acts of terrorism, including the midair bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.” Moreover, without getting rid of Qaddafi, the mission becomes exactly what the administration fears most: an open-ended, resource-draining patrol operation. If Qaddafi stays, the protection of Libyans becomes a perennial obligation.
The source of confusion is the White House’s reluctance to wield traditional American power. The president acts as if tentativeness is a virtue that serves to keep leaders grounded and realistic. It isn’t and it doesn’t. We’ve seen the results of this muddle before. In December 2009, Barack Obama announced in one breath both a troop surge to Afghanistan and an exit date for all troops in the country. Confusion and frustration among our commanders and allies led to the near disaster of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resignation and Hamid Karzai’s threatening to join up with the Taliban.
The American public will not tolerate the framing of differing mission objectives as a false choice. Obama needs to resolve this confusion quickly and decisively by explaining what is at stake in Libya and leading the effort to rid the world of the man President Ronald Reagan rightly called the “mad dog of the Middle East.” The lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq is, let’s do these things right and thoroughly or not do them at all. Somehow Obama has taken away the opposite message: Let’s be quick and confusing so no one can call us bad guys. If our commander in chief does not begin to lead this effort with clarity and conviction, he will soon find that being thought of as inconsiderate is the least of a president’s worries.