Neocon critics of Obama’s Libya mission have had a field day pointing to an alleged contradiction between Obama’s stated desire to see Gaddafi out of power and his refusal to describe that as a goal of the multilateral operation in that country. They point to the former as vindification of Bush’s foreign policy vision, and the latter as proof of Obama’s weakness.
But on a conference call with bloggers just now, a top White House adviser strongly rejected the notion of a contradiction, and doubled down on the White House’s rejection of the regime change goal in a way that will likely irk neocon critics further. He said the lesson of Iraq is that regime change leads to too much American ”ownership” of the fate of the country in question — something that pro-Bush commentators obviously see as a positive aspect of his Iraq legacy and a sign of his superior strength over Obama.
One of the most interesting aspects of Obama’s speech last night was his defense of the mission’s lack of a regime change goal. “We went down that road in Iraq,” he said. “Regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”
Asked to elaborate on the comparison on the blogger call, and to square this with Obama’s stated goal of seeing Gaddafi gone, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes reiterated that the President would use diplomatic and financial pressure to push Gaddafi out, but stood by the nuance: “It’s a very important distinction that he drew last night.”
“We needed to be very clear that the military part of our policy in Libya is restricted to civilian protection,” he continued. “Therefore, we narrowly defined the military definition to establishing a no-fly zone and cutting off his forces so they couldn’t enter into population centers.”
“If you allow your military mission to creep into encompassing regime change, there would be a number of problems with that,” Rhodes continued, noting that there’s no “international mandate” for regime change and that the “costs associated with regime change are far greater,” involving the introduction of ground forces or the sort of air campaign that could lead to more civilian casualties.
Rhodes reiterated that Iraq was a cautionary tale. “We know from Iraq that when you militarily undertake regime change you have a far greater ownership over what comes next,” he said, adding that regime change would mean “being responsible for essentially replacing the government that you removed,” and would “decrease legitimacy and decrease international support for our actions.”
To be sure, there are signs that the military mission is already overstepping its originally defined goals and is expanding into an overt effort to oust Gaddafi, and the White House’s nuanced message will leave critics insisting that Obama wants to have it both ways and has no clearly defined endgame. But Rhodes’s comments signal that in rhetorical terms at least, the White House will continue to reject the effort to pressure Obama into openly embracing regime change and will continue to challenge the neocon framing of the argument.