A Libyan Quagmire?

May 20, 2011 04:28

The botched and confused handling of the conflict in Libya has been a stunning example of President Obama’s leadership style, and of the media’s continued determination to ignore or gloss over anything that makes him look weak, incompetent or indecisive.

By Roger Aronoff

The botched and confused handling of the conflict in Libya has been a stunning example of President Obama’s leadership style, and of the media’s continued determination to ignore or gloss over anything that makes him look weak, incompetent or indecisive. What started out as a humanitarian mission to protect the civilian population of Benghazi, Libya, soon evolved into a stalemate. The dilemma is that Obama has repeatedly said that the goal is for regime change, but the NATO mission tasked to establish a no-fly zone and to protect the civilians does not provide the means to accomplish that goal.

It wasn’t until events in Egypt unfolded that the world’s attention moved west to Libya. On February 11th, Egypt’s president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down from office after weeks of drama, massive demonstrations, and a sense of inevitability that change was coming to the Middle East. President Obama stepped up to claim credit for his administration’s handling of the situation, but he was immediately faced with a growing crisis in Libya, where the circumstances were quite different from those in Egypt. Mubarak had been allied with the U.S. both militarily and diplomatically for many years. Egypt had kept the peace with Israel, and kept the Iranian-backed Hamas in Gaza from easily acquiring weapons and artillery with which to use against Israel.

Mubarak allowed the media to remain in the country with their cameras running, and chose not to use the kind of ruthless force necessary to shut down the protests against his government. Many analysts expressed concern that the best organized group in the country, other than the military, was the Muslim Brotherhood, which had spawned groups such al Qaeda. The concern was that if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in the wake of Mubarak’s departure, they were more likely to create an Islamist state governed by Sharia law, rather than a free and democratic state. In fact, there are already ominous signs that another chance at democracy in the Middle East is being hijacked by radical Islamists. One of the new government’s first acts was to allow an Iranian ship to pass through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. And less than two weeks after Mubarak stepped down, the radical Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who had been exiled by Mubarak, addressed a crowd of more than a million Egyptians in Tahrir Square, while Google executive Wael Ghonim, who had become a hero to many for spearheading this revolution when he started up a Facebook page, was denied the right to speak by Qaradawi’s security forces. The outcome of the revolution remains an uncertain concern for the West.

Less than a week after Mubarak stepped down, February 17th became a “day of rage” in Libya, marking the five-year anniversary of the start of the riots over the Danish cartoons that featured images of Muhammad. The uprising in Libya was followed by weeks of confusion and consternation in the U.S. and Europe. As Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were brutally taking on his own people, Western nations pondered and debated the right move.

With Gaddafi and his sons threatening to mercilessly crush the opposition forces, calls for intervention grew louder, though who would lead, the nature of the force, and defining the goals remained elusive.

Gaddafi has ruled Libya with an iron fist since his successful coup against King Idris in 1969. Libya’s oil has financed Gaddafi’s terrorist activities, including the horrific bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, and his nuclear weapons program, which he voluntarily gave up after the U.S. and its allies lined up against Iraq in 2002, just prior to the invasion.

On March 10, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead and recognized the official Libyan opposition, while at the same time the United Nations voted to remove Libya from its Human Rights Commission. As if to underline the absurdity of the situation, yes, Libya was on the UN’s Human Rights Commission.

Not to be left behind, President Obama began intense negotiations with his own advisers and cabinet members. As Foreign Policy magazine’s blog, “The Cable,” noted, “At the start of this week (March 14), the consensus around Washington was that military action against Libya was not in the cards. However, in the last several days, the White House completely altered its stance and successfully pushed for the authorization for military intervention against Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. What changed?

“The key decision was made by President Barack Obama himself at a Tuesday evening senior-level meeting at the White House, which was described by two administration officials as ‘extremely contentious.’ Inside that meeting, officials presented arguments both for and against attacking Libya. Obama ultimately sided with the interventionists.”

Obama is said to have concluded that “This is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values…referring to the broader change going on in the Middle East and the need to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights.”

So why Libya and not the other countries in the region? Again, according to The Cable’s Josh Rogin, who previously reported for Congressional Quarterly and worked at The Brookings Institution, “In Egypt and Tunisia, Obama chose to rebalance the American stance gradually backing away from support for President Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and allowing the popular movements to run their course. In Yemen and Bahrain, where the uprisings have turned violent, Obama has not even uttered a word in support of armed intervention—instead pressing those regimes to embrace reform on their own. But in deciding to attack Libya, Obama has charted an entirely new strategy, relying on U.S. hard power and the use of force to influence the outcome of Arab events.”

As the time approached, “Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough held a conference call with top Congressional staffers on Friday afternoon [March 18th] where he emphasized Obama’s “deep respect for Congress in all of these matters,” and gave a read out of the White House meeting. “The president expects the preponderance of our involvement to last a matter of days, not weeks,” McDonough said.

“At the front end of this effort, the United States will contribute our unique capabilities to neutralize air defenses and military equipment that threatens civilians and civilian-populated areas to enable ongoing enforcement operations led by our partners,” he said. “We will then enable and support other countries to enforce the no-fly zone…with us in a support role…. It will not be an open ended effort by the United States.”

Rogin described the discussions that went on leading up to the military action: “Inside the administration, senior officials were lined up on both sides. Pushing for military intervention was a group of NSC staffers including Samantha Power, along with Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice. On the other side of the ledger were some Obama administration officials who were reportedly wary of the second- and third-degree effects of committing to a lengthy military mission in Libya. These officials included National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also opposed to attacking Libya and had said as much in several public statements.”

Following the meeting on March 15th, according to Josh Rogin, “Obama gave U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice instructions to go the U.N. Security Council and push for a resolution that would give the international community authority to use force. Her instructions were to get a resolution that would give the international community broad authority to achieve Qaddafi’s removal, including the use of force beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone.”

Rice made the humanitarian argument for force in Libya and cited a request days earlier from the Arab League to establish a no-fly zone to prevent civilian suffering. The Security Council voted 10-0 to support the action, with five abstentions.

On March 19th Obama announced that he had “authorized the Armed Forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians,” and that he had “acted after consulting with my national security team, and Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress.”

The irony here, as noted by the blogger Glenn Reynolds, was that “Barack Obama ordered the bombing of an Arab dictatorship at precisely the same point in his presidency that George W. Bush did”—March 19th of their third year in office.

James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal couldn’t resist the irony of Obama’s position: “Of course, there were some differences. The Libya war is new; the Iraq one was an escalation of a conflict that had been under way for 12 years. The U.N. Security Council had authorized action in Libya for the first time two days earlier, vs. 17 times in Iraq. Bush had persuaded a large majority of the public that escalating the war was a good idea; Obama had to act more quickly, without making a sustained case to either the public or Congress.”

On March 28, Obama finally addressed the nation in prime time, and said, “Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and the no-fly zone. Last night, NATO decided to take on the additional responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians. This transfer from the United States to NATO will take place on Wednesday. Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Qaddafi’s remaining forces.”

In his speech, Obama criticized both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He implied that Bush had acted unilaterally and recklessly in Iraq, without the backing of a broad coalition, and that Bill Clinton and the international community had taken more than a full year to mobilize and intervene to save lives in Bosnia in the 1990s.

But what Obama did was to bypass Congress. While he sought the approval of NATO and the U.N., he informed the leaders of Congress the day before military actions began, and issued a letter within 48 hours after the strikes began to be in compliance with the War Powers Act.

Most of the mainstream media, particularly network news coverage, had no problem with the fact that Obama had not sought congressional approval, as President Bush (41 and 43) had done in waging war on Iraq. The fact is that no president has sought an official declaration of war since World War II, but in most cases, the presidents sought and received an authorization for the use of force from Congress.

The AP Fact Checks Obama

In the print media, there was some notable criticism of President Obama. The day after his March 28th speech, for example, the Associated Press came down hard on Obama and challenged much of what he had said. For example, in response to his statement about transferring command of the operation to NATO, the AP said, “The United States supplies 22 percent of NATO’s budget,” and that “the commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples, is an American admiral, and the admiral’s boss is the supreme allied commander Europe, a post always held by an American.”

There were other examples as well that the AP noted:

OBAMA: “Our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives.”

THE FACTS: Even as the U.S. steps back as the nominal leader, reduces some assets and fires a declining number of cruise missiles, the scope of the mission appears to be expanding and the end game remains unclear.

OBAMA: Seeking to justify military intervention, the president said the U.S. has “an important strategic interest in preventing Gadhafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful—yet fragile—transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.” He added: “I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.”

THE FACTS: Obama did not wait to make that case to Congress, despite his past statements that presidents should get congressional authorization before taking the country to war, absent a threat to the nation that cannot wait.

“The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” Obama told The Boston Globe in 2007 in his presidential campaign. “History has shown us time and again … that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch.”

OBAMA: “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.”

THE FACTS: Mass violence against civilians has also been escalating elsewhere, without any U.S. military intervention anticipated.

One final jab from the AP: “Presidents typically pick their fights according to the crisis and circumstances at hand, not any consistent doctrine about when to use force in one place and not another. They have been criticized for doing so—by Obama himself.

The Los Angeles Times offered a rather grim assessment of where we stood as of April 18th. “We rushed into this without a plan,” said David Barno, a retired Army general who once commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. “Now we’re out in the middle, going in circles.”

“The failure of the international air campaign to force Kadafi’s ouster, or even to stop his military from shelling civilians and recapturing rebel-held towns, poses a growing quandary for President Obama and other NATO leaders: What now?

“Privately, U.S. officials concede that some of their assumptions before they intervened in the Libyan conflict may have been faulty. Among them was the notion that air power alone would degrade Kadafi’s military to the point where he would be forced to halt his attacks, and that the U.S. could leave the airstrikes primarily to warplanes from Britain, France and other European countries,” said the Times.

There are 28 nations in NATO, but only six of them are involved militarily in Libya. Dissension is reportedly on the rise over how to proceed, and how much of the load the U.S. should shoulder. On April 1, Sec. of Defense Robert Gates told a House committee that “we will not be taking an active part in the strike activities,” as the U.S. was declaring that it was only serving in a support role from that point on. But on April 13, in response to criticism for their lack of involvement, the Pentagon announced that 11 U.S. fighter jets have been flying bombing attacks to take out air defensive systems and that they “have flown 97 of the 134 air defense mission sorties since April 4,” according to the AP.

On April 21, Richard Engel of NBC News reported that there is concern about mission creep. “Every single day NATO is getting drawn deeper and deeper into this conflict in Libya,” said Engel. “Three European nations have already committed to sending military advisers to help train the rebels in logistics and tactics, both of which they badly need.” In addition, the U.S. announced it was adding two predator drones, which previously had been used for reconnaissance only, and now was going to be used for attack missions.

What started out as “only days, not weeks” is turning into months. Since there is nearly universal agreement that this can’t end with Gaddafi still in power, at some point the mission is likely to shift to regime change by whatever means it takes, exactly the position that President Obama wanted to avoid.

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media. He can be contacted at roger.aronoff@aim.org.

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