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The missing context in Obama’s speech on Libya

at 06:00 AM ET, 03/30/2011


((Dennis Brack/via BLOOMBERG))

“The fact is, close to five years after 9/11 and fifteen years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States still lacks a coherent national security policy. Instead of guiding principles, we have what appear to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results. Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur? …Are we committed to use force wherever there’s a despotic regime that’s terrorizing its people—and if so, how long do we stay to ensure democracy takes root? …Perhaps someone inside the White House has clear answers to these questions. But our allies—and for that matter our enemies—certainly don’t know what the answers are. More important, neither do the American people. Without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands, America will lack the legitimacy—and ultimately the power—it needs to make the world safer than it is today.”

--Barack Obama. “The Audacity of Hope” (2006), page 302.

 

“We don’t get very hung up on this question of precedent. We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent.”—Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, March 28, 2011

 

     We present the quotes above as another example of how things can look very different from inside the White House than from the outside. In his book, then-Senator Obama asks a number of pointed questions about how and why a president decides to send U.S. troops into an armed conflict. It’s not clear that President Obama provided the answers in his speech to the nation on the Libyan conflict Monday night. It was certainly hard to discern something akin to an “Obama doctrine.”

In terms of fact-checking the president’s speech, we did not find any major errors. But some elements of the speech require some further context.

    “ For more than four decades, the Libyan people have been ruled by a tyrant, Moammar Gaddafi. He has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world, including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents.”

This is all true, but Obama neglected to say that in recent years, Gaddafi had been rehabilitated. In a deal with the Bush administration, he gave up his nascent weapons of mass destruction and paid $2.7 billion to settle claims relating to the Libyan-directed bombing of Pan Am 103.

Libya won a seat on the U.N. Security Council and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2008 traveled to Tripoli to meet with Gaddafi. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warmly greeted national security adviser Mutassim Gaddafi—fourth son of the leader-- at the State Department, saying, “We deeply value the relationship between the United States and Libya. We have many opportunities to deepen and broaden our cooperation.” And Obama himself shook hands with the “tyrant” at an international summit.

 Obama’s reference to Americans killed by Libyan agents appears to refer to something that happened a quarter-century ago--the 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque. President Reagan retaliated by bombing targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, killing 100 people, including an adopted infant daughter of Gaddafi.

 

“In the face of the world's condemnation, Gaddafi chose to escalate his attacks, launching a military campaign against the Libyan people. Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off. Water for hundreds of thousands of people in Misurata was shut off.  Cities and towns were shelled, mosques were destroyed, and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assaults from the air.”

Interestingly, Obama essentially confirmed an analysis that the Director National Intelligence, James Clapper, had made earlier this month, only to be criticized by the White House.

During congressional testimony on March 10, Clapper said that force loyal to Gaddafi were likely to “prevail” in a fight with the rebels. “The regime has more logistical resources in terms of the equipment they have, the first-line equipment anywhere in Libya is held by the regime forces,” he said. “There are two special brigades, the 32nd and the 9th, which are very, very loyal to Gaddafi and do his bidding. They are the most robustly equipped with Russian equipment to include air defense, artillery, tanks, mechanized equipment, and they appear to be much more disciplined about how they treat and repair that equipment.”

Within hours, national security adviser Thomas Donilon held a conference call with reporters and dismissed Clapper’s assessment as looking through “a static, unidimensional lens.” He added: “Gaddafi is isolated and the isolation is fairly complete in the world.  His resources are being cut off.  The international community is engaged in an increasingly deep way with the opposition.  So I would just caution that a dynamic and a multidimensional analysis is more appropriate in the circumstance.”

 It turns out Clapper was right--at least until U.S. and allied jets showed up.

“In this effort, the United States has not acted alone. Instead, we have been joined by a strong and growing coalition. This includes our closest allies -- nations like the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey -- all of whom have fought by our side for decades. And it includes Arab partners like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have chosen to meet their responsibilities to defend the Libyan people.”

As multilateral ventures go, this military coalition is pretty thin, making it the smallest in decades, as Foreign Policy magazine has pointed out.

“Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and 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…. the United States will play a supporting role.”

Which country supplies the largest share of the NATO budget? The United States. Which country in NATO has airborne capabilities that no other country can match? The United States. Who is the ultimate boss of the Canadian general who will be running NATO’s operations? An American.  Behind the facade of a NATO-led mission, the United States will still play a formidable role.

 

“And tonight, I can report that we have stopped Gaddafi's deadly advance."

Not quite “mission accomplished,” but Obama should hope he did not speak too soon. As The Washington Post reported Tuesday: “After having pushed westward with the aid of  international airstrikes, the rebels again found themselves under heavy attack Tuesday and were forced to flee along a coastal highway toward their eastern strongholds, abandoning towns they had recaptured in the last couple of days.”

Anne Gearan of the Associated Press made the astute observation that Obama, in his speech, never directly mentioned the rebels fighting Gaddafi. It is an interesting omission that suggests Obama is hedging his bets about what kind of government ultimately emerges in Libya.

 

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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