We all recall how the horrific events of 9/11 created a groundswell of support to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban. Support for overthrowing Iraq also became widespread largely because of the rumours—later proved false—that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction ready to unleash on the United States. Since then, Americans have soured on these two seemingly endless conflicts. So we can understand that Americans were not in a rush to intervene when the Libyan crisis erupted.
The current military operation was bound to raise doubts on all sides of the political spectrum. The fact that President Obama must address the nation suggests that Americans are concerned and are in need of some coherent explanation. From the outset, the president seemed the reluctant warrior. Clearly, leading the U.S. to invade a third Muslim country in 10 years was not part of his foreign policy plan.
Obama was initially provided with some cover when rebel forces tried to overthrow Colonel Gadhafi themselves. But once Gadhafi began importing mercenaries, shooting civilians and unleashing his superior weapon advantage, the president was faced with a humanitarian crisis reminiscent of the Rwandan civil war. The pressure to intervene was mounting as other so-called democratic forces were rising elsewhere. Finally, the rebels themselves cried for help.
The preferred course of diplomacy, somewhat successful in the Egypt crisis, began to produce dividends in the nick of time. The UN Security Council delivered a resolution, the Arab League asked for a no fly zone and were willing to help, and European leadership led by France and England resulted in an operation (albeit with heavy U.S. involvement) that halted the potential humanitarian catastrophe. Now there is an indisputable no fly zone with NATO leading the operation. Meanwhile, the rebels are regaining ground and Gadhafi forces are on the defensive.
Unlike the Afghan and Iraq wars, a spirited debate is emerging about Obama’s course of action. Republicans have led the charge but their criticism seems focused on process. John McCain says Obama should have imposed a no fly zone sooner, but the diplomacy was not up to speed and this would have resulted in a third U.S. led invasion of a Muslim country. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates clearly stated: imposing a no fly zone is a military operation.
Other Republican criticism ranges from questioning the end game, to how the U.S. proceeds if Gadhafi is not defeated, to why Congress was not consulted before U.S. aircrafts began flying. These are legitimate questions. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have repeatedly said they want Gadhafi removed. What happens if he stays in power? Other Republicans like Senator Richard Lugar actually question whether it is in U.S. interests to be so involved. Meanwhile, presidential contenders have acted more like pundits criticizing the Obama style and character, rather than behaving like eventual policy makers.
President Obama does have a case in that his approach has avoided the costly unilateralism in Iraq, and the consensus among voters is supportive of an allied approach. It is in line with the Cairo speech calling for political reform in the Middle East and engaging in a multilateral action in support should the need arise. It appears the humanitarian crisis has been averted and the president can take some well deserved credit for it.
This weekend, Secretary Gates said Libya was not in the vital interests of the U.S. The humanitarian nature of the mission is consistently emphasized. As of now, there are no U.S. boots on the ground, which has always been an Obama objective. But as the conversation continues to unfold in America, events are occurring elsewhere in the Middle East. It is hard to predict the outcomes. The overriding question is: Is the Obama administration on the right side of history as the Middle East events develop?