Saturday, March 26, 2011

Libya: Beginning the endgame

In the week since the Obama White House ordered 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles to be launched against Libya, as part of an international coalition brought to bear against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s been whipsawed from concern to doubts to cautious optimism. Shock and awe didn’t make an appearance, and apparently they won’t. The high-explosive grandstanding that took place eight years earlier, in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, had been replaced by something more surgical than a drone strike.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that, effective sometime in the coming days, “transition of command and control” of a no-fly zone over Libya would be transferred to the 28 member nations of the NATO alliance. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also jointly agreed to participate, with 14 aircraft committed to non-combatant roles.

This followed President Obama’s earlier, bigger announcement of the start of the military offensive against Libya. "We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy," Obama said Saturday from Brazil, while on a five-day Latin American trip.

“Our consensus was strong, and our resolve is clear. The people of Libya must be protected, and in the absence of an immediate end to the violence against civilians our coalition is prepared to act, and to act with urgency," the president said.

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With nick-of-time precision, French fighter jets hit Gaddafi forces on the ground at Benghazi, the opposition stronghold, repelling them from a foothold established earlier in the day. Since then, French and British forces have taken out artillery and armored vehicles near the bitterly contested town of Ajdabiya.

And on Friday, The Globe and Mail reported that Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard of the Canadian Air Force would take control of the no-fly zone, effectively becoming the face of the international coalition against the forces of Gaddafi and the current Libyan government.

“Don’t expect a kinder, gentler mission just because he’s Canadian,” said a senior Canadian officer to The Globe and Mail’s Paul Koring. “Choosing Bouchard makes a lot of sense – he has high credibility with the American leadership,” the officer added, alluding to Bouchard’s experience as commander of Canadian Air Force operations and deputy commander of NORAD.

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What’s been set in motion may be as much the beginning of something as the end of something else.

For Gaddafi, the operational handoff to NATO complicates his prospects of surviving the current civil unrest in Libya; the overnight multiplication of international forces actively and passively opposing his regime accelerates the likelihood that, after 42 years in power, Gaddafi is done and done.

For the Obama White House, the coming transfer of some operational responsibilities ushers in the start of a new position for American military leadership in global conflicts: in a supporting role more central than the word “supporting” would indicate — as first among equals in a coalition, but inarguably first in the technology and expertise needed to make that coalition work.

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Before Clinton’s handover notice, things did not look good. There was a war on clear language. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reported Wednesday that, in a briefing on Air Force One, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes justified the U.S. response to a looming humanitarian crisis, noting that “kinetic military action” would be necessary, “particularly on the front end.” This, of course, begs the question of what non-kinetic military action looks like.

President Obama inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from his predecessor, but the war in Libya could have had the Obama signature. The president has prevented that with a dignified handoff of responsibility underway, but even before the handoff, the trademark Obama caution was in full effect. No action was taken until after consultation with any number of like-minded partners, the United Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League.

This wasn’t just playing for time; it was foundational to understanding the complexities of the immediate situation, its moving parts and conflicting loyalties. The time it took to put this together points to a reliance on the power of diplomacy and statecraft in the 21st century — an understanding Bush #43 never had.

When the Obama White House made the decision to attack, it was swift and reasoned. The threats of mass slaughter made by Gaddafi in recent off-the-hook statements; his proven recent willingness to murder his population in the hundreds and thousands; and earlier unhinged actions that cost unknown Libyan lives over the previous 42 years of his autocratic rule all provided the Obama White House with a solid rationale for acting militarily to slow Gaddafi’s march to the killing ground, first with a no-fly zone over much of the country.

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While absolutely defensible from a humanitarian perspective — in a more perfect world, the only perspective that would matter — the decision that indicated Obama’s moral compass heading confronts matters of constitutional procedure and comprehensive vision.

Constitutionally, President Obama may not have been on the firmest footing. You can slice and dice and parse the language forever with phrases like “limited military action” and “kinetic military action,” but war is still war. The attacks of March 19th opened the door, if only a little, to charges of the Obama White House engaging in the same precipitate, provocative action as the Bush White House, eight years earlier.

For a while, the president got his longed-for congressional consensus, just  not the one he wanted. Before the handoff announcement, criticism of the Obama Libya plan was as bipartisan as he could ask for. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer was cautiously optimistic, but Jane Harman of California rebuked the move being made without congressional consult. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a fellow Democrat, said Obama's decision "would appear on its face to be an impeachable offense."

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On Sunday, it took House Speaker John Boehner (of all people) to offer a note of caution that was, regardless of political motivations, astonishingly circumspect:

“The President is the commander-in-chief, but the Administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America’s role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished. Before any further military commitments are made, the Administration must do a better job of briefing members of Congress and communicating to the American people about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved.”

Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, as rock-solid an Obama supporter as you’ll find in Congress, said much the same thing on Monday. “I think it is important that we show that we’re a powerful country who is willing to step in and for those who are not able to protect themselves,” Weiner told WCBS. “I do believe, though, that the president should have and still should come to Congress for authorization.”

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There are some big differences between the March 19ths. In 2003, Bush acted unilaterally, independent of any opposing international consensus (and frankly indifferent to any such consensus) when he ordered the United States into Iraq.

Obama went to great lengths to stress that the Libya action was a joint deal, mounted with French fighter jets taking the lead strikes against Gaddafi’s forces, and with the pledged participation of Qatar and the UAE. This is meant to reinforce the perception of the Libya crisis as a regional concern to be decided by regional players. The president’s explanation also seeks to undercut potentially bad geopolitical cosmetics; it downplays the perception of the United States as lead crusader actor, waging war on a third Muslim country in eight years.

Obama’s basic humanist reflex called for doing something to help the Libyan people indiscriminately targeted for destruction by their leader. At the same time, it’s probable that his political instincts took over as well.

With more than two years of experience in the ways the Republicans could gridlock his every initiative domestic and foreign, Obama knew (or rightly suspected) that in a divided Congress that’d take a week to form a subcommittee to decide who buys lunch, subjecting his plan for formal congressional review would be just asking to have it tied up for days or weeks. While the people of Libya were slaughtered en masse.

Kosovo the sequel? Rwanda II? Not on his watch.

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Obama made a decision on principle, coordinated U.S. intentions with the NATO countries, and acted with those countries under the imprimatur of two United Nations Security Council resolutions. Right or wrong constitutionally, the move was made, but in making it Obama raised questions of his comprehensive vision of his action and its consequences. The operative phrase made the rounds of the punditburo all week: What’s the endgame?

Now we know. Maybe.

Here’s the hope that what seems to be in progress — perhaps the first modern multilateral military operation in which the United States stepped down from its historical role as global presumptive general — actually comes to pass. While Obama’s plan may not satisfy those who cherish that traditional patriotic reflex — nobody’s the boss of U.S.! — it speaks to a necessary pragmatism about what the United States can and can’t do in a time of profound economic crisis at home, and the ongoing financial vortex of two kinetic foreign wars, and what the United States shouldn’t be expected to do, on its own and indefinitely in any case.

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The advance guard of the conservative long knives got out early on Thursday, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, when Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal actually used the I-word in referencing Obama’s Libya policy: “It’s starting to look incompetent.”

Not so fast. The conservatives on Capitol Hill and in the RushBeckosphere, thinking with the absolutist political metrics and cynical expectations they’re most comfortable with, may have fired too soon. It may just be that Captain Cerebral has done it again, patiently chipped himself out of a seemingly intractable prison of a problem, built a model (as opposed to a template) for future American military responses and, at this point, effected a solution in Libya that politically, geopolitically and militarily makes sense.

Yes, the devil’s in the details. There are I’s to dot and T’s to cross. Until the lines of responsibility are clearly drawn on navigating the Libya crisis, until the other coalition partners flex their military muscle in unprecedented ways, some burden of proof is still on this administration to disprove the quietly building suspicion: What a difference eight years might not make.

But by coincidence or by design, President Obama’s most proactive military engagement since taking office — the major military offensive that absolutely bears his name and his alone — happened on a date that deserves to live in its own infamy for the cost this nation has paid, at every level, since March 19, 2003.

Eight years later — within days but not weeks, it seems — the president’s gone some distance toward making that date on the calendar mean something we can feel a little better about.

Image credits: Obama: Pablo Martinez Monisvais/Associated Press. Libya no-fly map: Front page: The Huffington Post, March 19. Gaddafi: screengrab from Al Jazeera video feed. Weiner: CBS News.

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