By Michael Granger
On March 20, President Obama opened up a new front in the War on Terror by commencing the bombing of Libya. Perforce, from all that had transpired in the preceding weeks in the Middle East, the nature of the personality he is trying to stop and the imminent danger facing the Libyan rebels at the hands of forces loyal to the Libyan President, he felt compelled to act. The President’s actions thus far have been noble, taking the lead in a situation where only the United States could perform to specifications.
But that does not exempt him from scrutiny. And as in every military action, you must know what your objectives are, how you achieve them and how you disengage or exit. It must also be explained to the American people and congressional support must be obtained. To the extent that members of congress, let alone the average American, have no clue about the objective, strategy and plan to exit the Libyan intervention, there lies the President’s problem.
This analysis does not pertain to what is largely covered in the press, which focuses on keeping score of the military campaign, rather than asking the question “why” up front. This has to do with the fact that we have initiated bombing of a third Muslim country and all that it implies. To be certain, the fact that the leader of that country is not in the least a sympathetic figure made it easy for President Obama to take that step, even against the advice of his Secretary of Defense. The President, instead, listened to his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and took this seemingly small, but important step.
Never a small step
When the United States acts militarily, it is never a small step. Because we are significant, any military move we make is viewed as significant and people expect us to have a sound rationale and a well thought out plan. People even invent conspiracy theories about why we act when we do so.
So when we make a move, it must be well understood by the people of the United States and it must have congressional support. This is why what appears to be the right move on Obama’s part has gone awry. Anytime one country launches an attack on another, irrespective of the reason, it is an act of war. The congress is by and large livid that the President did not seek legislative consensus and rally the nation behind him. In addition to not having support, the objectives or end-game are not obvious to most of us. And we are now hearing confusing explanations about why we are there: to set up a no-fly zone or regime change.
There are many unanswered questions, such as the identity of the rebels, how the civil war will play out and how to handle a potential break-up of Libya? And the last thing we need is to be duped into taking military action to replace one undesirable regime with another. So what is our next step?
Since Libya is of marginal strategic importance to the United States, this is an opportunistic venture to get rid of an irritant not liked by anyone. The president promises that the U.S. role, after leading with unique capabilities to knock out Libyan air defenses, will be relegated to the role of coalition member when the United States hands over the leadership reins to France or the UK. Bombing a third Muslim country, with all the problems such an act creates, just to hand the reins over to France and the UK, appears incongruous compared with the risk that obtains with such an act, and trivializes the gravity of this act of war and its potential consequences.
A question of leadership
Recently, President Obama has been criticized for not being a leader on budget and other issues. The Libya situation leaves him open to criticism and makes it more difficult to dispel this notion. The President must now redouble his efforts to demonstrate better management of this national security crisis, which many think is of his own making. He must arrest the perception that he is a detached leader and the charge that he was capricious about making this decision. After all, first he said no, and then, prevailed upon by Secretary Clinton, he said yes to war.
The United States is a large and powerful country with a lot at stake, especially in the Middle East. The President of the United States must be a highly disciplined decision maker. He must be able to resist the temptation to be pushed into decision with high cost but little benefit for the nation. And when he takes such a decision, he must be able to carry it forward with the full force and prestige of the United States.
Since this is Obama’s first decision to commit the U.S. Military to action, other than follow-on actions in Afghanistan, he needs to get this right. It is unclear that there is a precedent for the United Nations to intervene in a civil war on one side, and whether it was wise for us to support it, irrespective of how despicable the leader may be, but he needs to fix it very quickly.
When all is said and done, his reelection could be adversely affected by this seemingly small commitment of military power. The president must know by now that anything pertaining to military action or spending can be especially perilous in the current political environment.
All in all, I think he made the right decision.