On Monday night, President Barack Obama right-sized the mission in Libya. His speech explained the limits of our role and our interests in Libya, though the extent of our commitment to the new NATO command is still evolving.
Perhaps the most important part of the speech -- at least to me -- was the effort to reconcile Obama’s view that Muammar Qaddafi must leave office with a mission limited to protecting the Libyan people.
The clarification was important. Essentially, our president said that regime change needs to be a local call. Outside interventions should protect populations engaged in peaceful protest from wholesale slaughter and, hopefully, set the circumstances where people can determine their own leadership. He cited Iraq, which the U.S. invaded in 2003, as the wrong approach.
Of course the ghosts of Rwanda and Bosnia were in that National Defense University auditorium, where Obama delivered his prime-time speech. In one case, the world stood by as tens of thousands perished. In the other, a no-fly zone didn’t prevent the humanitarian catastrophe in Srebrenica. Only arming the Bosnians and Croats and brokering a cold peace at Dayton, Ohio, ended the killing.
Compelling as the Libyan case is, the context is totally different. It is post 9/11 and the U.S. is heavily involved in two military interventions in Muslim countries. Operation Odyssey Dawn, as the Libyan operation has been dubbed, marks the third. The cost to the U.S. of this intervention is already more than $300 million, and our expenses as a NATO partner could easily take this number to $1 billion.
Command and Control
NATO has assumed command and control of this mission, but the same unique capabilities that made the U.S. the initial leader will continue to be in demand, ensuring that the U.S. maintains a pre-eminent role.
Successfully sidelining Qaddafi will require continued strike operations against his government units and military infrastructure, along with diplomatic and information operations designed to weaken the resolve of the regime and its military forces. The mission also will require more air attacks, refueling tankers, surveillance and intelligence gear, which only the U.S. possesses.
Even if the international coalition is successful in isolating Qaddafi, there will be a long and bumpy road ahead to help create stability and democratic institutions in a country ruled by an iron fist for 40 years.
Libya can’t just be viewed as a one-off. What the president’s speech didn’t do was to put Libya in context of the larger transformation taking place in the Middle East. Yemen, Pakistan and Iran pose greater strategic threats to the U.S. What is the U.S. plan when unrest destabilizes them?
This is a zero-sum game militarily, and the opportunity cost is deeply concerning.
The president’s 2009 Cairo speech began to sketch an overarching strategic narrative for the U.S., one that explains our role in the world and how we see our future.
Now we need the sequel. Military might alone won’t solve our problems. There is no question that staying on the right side of history is important. But unless we prioritize carefully, we may well end up compromising our core security interest, which is protecting the U.S. homeland from the most dangerous threats.
(Jane Harman, formerly a U.S. representative from California, is president and chief executive officer of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Meg.King@wilsoncenter.org
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