Obama doctrine? If only
Michael Boyle / Guardian
In his speech on Monday night, President Obama articulated his rationale for the ongoing military campaign in Libya, claiming that a failure to act would have permitted humanitarian catastrophe that would have "would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world". His argument was essentially one of moral emergency, implying that anyone chastened by the failure of the US and European governments to act in Rwanda and similar cases should recognise the necessity of acting in Libya.
But as recent events have demonstrated, a compelling moral case does not equate to a coherent strategy. Indeed, it is charitable to call this strategy muddled. Initially committed to only to defensive operations to stop the advance of the Libyan military into cities like Benghazi, the Obama administration quickly began working with the rebels to coordinate air strikes to push back Gaddafi's forces. This turned the US, Britain and France into combatants in a civil war; no matter how much they claim only to be engaged in "kinetic military action" or some other Orwellian euphemism, the facts are plain. There are now CIA officers present in Libya to coordinate air strikes with rebels , and the US has flown over 1,600 sorties . While the American public may be fooled by the dissembling language, Gaddafi and his regime will have no illusions about who is bombing them.
Now, if only to underscore this point that this is a real war, the US and its allies are considering sending weapons to the Libyan rebels . Even contemplating this reflects an astonishing level of ignorance: the weapons will embolden the rebels and increase the chances of a bloody, long-running stalemate between the Gaddafi regime and the rebels. The coalition effort has gone from babysitting a civil war to sponsoring it, ignoring precedents such as Afghanistan that make clear that flooding a country with weapons leads only to higher death tolls and vicious blowback over the long run.
All of this could be forgivable if the Obama administration or its European partners had shown an iota of forethought about the potential consequences of their actions. Instead, they appear to have rushed into this operation without a workable Plan B. Their hope was that air strikes and the pressure of rebel advances would cause the regime to crumble. But Gaddafi's forces – still vastly more powerful than the rebels – have reversed their losses and a stalemate looks more likely . Further, even high-profile defections have not yet appeared to influence Gaddafi's (admittedly less than rational) thinking. Unless he is killed or otherwise overthrown, Gaddafi can continue to hold out, supported by a small number of loyalists and family members , in the hope that he can prolong the war to the point where the costs begin to exceed the potential benefits for US and its coalition partners. Given that he faces exile, indictment or death if he is overthrown, he has every incentive to do just that.
If that happens, the only option left would be to place US or allied ground troops to assist rebels in forcing Gaddafi out of power. But Secretary Gates has emphasised repeatedly that there will be no "boots on the ground" . Having taken escalation through ground forces off the table, what then is the next step? How will additional pressure on Gaddafi be generated?
More to the point, what exactly is the strategy if the cumulative effect of the action so far is to produce the siege of Tripoli?
Instead of confronting these questions in a hardheaded way, the Obama administration has been obsessed with demonstrating the international legitimacy of the operation, pointing to a UN mandate and the support of the Arab League. But diplomatic blessings do not change the facts of war. Even the transfer of command authority from the US to Nato is mere window-dressing; it is the same set of countries bombing Libyan forces, no matter what acronym they hide behind. It is a peculiar form of bureaucratic myopia to worry more about who sits in what chair in Brussels than about the consequences of poor strategy.
Even more depressingly, the political debate in the US over the Libyan operation has become grotesque, as the same players who served as cheerleaders for the Iraq war have come out in force to celebrate this war as a step forward for human rights. The same liberal internationalists who chided President Bush for seeking regime change in Iraq have applauded President Obama for taking similar action in Libya, despite the fact that the operations in Libya are well beyond the measures to protect civilians authorised in the UN security council resolution .
Similarly, the neoconservatives have seen this operation as a vindication of President Bush's strategy, and a reaffirmation of the right of the US to remove the leader of a foreign country if it suits out interests to do so . Neither party is behaving responsibly here. The Republican presidential candidates are stumbling over themselves finding ways to denounce President Obama for doing precisely what they would have done if put in his position. Meanwhile, few on the Democratic side appear to be willing to push the president to explain his nonsensical position that Gaddafi must go, but that the objective of the US is not regime change.
Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of this operation is that it proves that President Obama has been seduced by the power of the Oval Office into betraying many of the promises he represented as a candidate. The same thoughtful man who once argued that the US should never go to war without a congressional authorisation did not seek one, and waited ten days before even addressing the American public about his rationale for the operation. The same president who pledged in his national security strategy to take into account the limitation of our economic resources in his foreign policy decisions has led us into a war costing hundreds of millions of dollars . The same president once critical of a rush into a "dumb war" has let a compelling moral cause turn the US into a party in another war in the Middle East .
The unfortunate result is that President Obama has begun to resemble his predecessor far more than he or his supporters would care to admit.
Michael Boyle is assistant professor of political science at La Salle University, Philadelphia .Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.
This commentary was originally published on April 03, 2011 in Guardian. Petroleumworld reprint this article in the interest of our readers.
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