President Barack Obama, in his address to the nation, tried to reassure an ambivalent, inattentive public and a skeptical press corps about American involvement in NATO's no-fly zone over Libya. The president's speech sought out a middle ground, couching his administration's approach as measured but decisive in the campaign against loyalists to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
"In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secured an international mandate to protect civilians, stopped an advancing army, prevented a massacre, and established a no-fly zone with our allies and partners," Obama declared.
The president favorably contrasted the last 31 days, in which the international community mobilized the no-fly zone over Libya, with NATO operations in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, which took about one year to improve the situation. He also distinguished his present actions from those taken by George W. Bush in the 2003 Iraq invasion. The president indicated that, while the world would be better off with Gadhafi out of power, expanding the scope of military operations to last throughout a regime change in Libya is not an option.
"To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq," observed President Obama. "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."
The president's challenge was two-fold this evening. First, critics seemed almost desperate to ignore facts inconsistent with their criticisms, apparently either rejecting or ignoring recent events on the ground. And second, the president's disavowal of directly effecting regime change opened him up to questions about whether seeing Gadhafi deposed was consistent with his well-worn platform as the anti-Bush. The president faced a tough task tonight considering the arguments for the no-fly zone that had already been rejected or ignored by skeptics, even while acknowledging that our recent history has made Americans wary.
Would military action be justified in Libya if, in an unprecedented move, it were requested by the Libyan people and the Arab League? Or maybe if the U.N. sanctioned such action, and NATO surprised virtually all observers by stepping forward to lead the effort?
What if Gadhafi's forces were armed with Viagra and condoms? And hospitals were treating women evidencing sexual assaults allegedly perpetrated by Gadhafi loyalists? And what if a 26-year-old law student recently burst into a hotel housing international media and detailed numerous rapes and other savage indignities that she allegedly suffered at the hands of loyalists?
Or perhaps access to oil and the removal of a bad, bad guy would be enough, like in 2003?
Even considering Gadhafi's demonstrations of depravity, international unity endorsing the no-fly zone, and the public's extraordinarily low bar for previous military interventions, critics persisted. They questioned whether the strategy could possibly have the effect of removing Gadhafi from power. They warned that no empirical evidence demonstrated the effectiveness of no-fly zones. Pointing to NATO operations over an imploding Yugoslavia and impotent use of the tool in Iraqi skies after the Persian Gulf War, skeptics of the present no-fly zone argued that the goals are noble, but the means adopted cannot possibly achieve them.
Though it is far too early to count chickens, Libyan rebels are claiming victory along the path from their base of support in Benghazi to Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli. As President Obama detailed tonight, events in the wake of Allied actions could hardly have been expected to unfold better for Libyan rebels. Pro-democracy fighters were rolling back key loyalist gains this week, as rebels moved ever closer to the capital.
There is no doubt in the mind of the president, nor in those of his critics, that enormous challenges lie ahead for Libya, both leading up to and in the wake of deposing Gadhafi. As was the case in Egypt and Tunisia, celebrating an all-out victory prematurely -- before Gadhafi is removed from power, the power-vacuum is filled, and reforms are implemented -- would be to embrace false comfort. Gargantuan though these challenges may be, certainly some degree of solace can be taken in how effective, decisive, and measured President Obama's leadership has been in this international crisis.
"It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gadhafi tries desperately to hang on to power," Obama said of an eventual Gadhafi-removal, which he seemed to endorse only if carried out by the Libyan people. "But it should be clear to those around Gadhafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on his side. With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny.
"And that is how it should be."