Monday, March 28, 2011

Presidential resolution

President Obama will address the nation tonight, speaking about the situation in Libya from the National Defense University in Washington. Weekend news reports from Libya found the rebels making swift advances, moving west at lightning speed from Benghazi (their stronghold) to Ajdabiya to Brega to Bin Jawwad to Ras Lanouf to the outskirts of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown — more than 150 miles of advance in a weekend. Patton never moved this fast, and he had a real army.

The movements of the rebel forces are getting a big assist from NATO air strikes on Gaddafi’s artillery and armor. “Now because of NATO strikes on (the government's) heavy weapons, we're almost fighting with the same weapons,” one rebel commander said today.

With NATO in full operational control of the no-fly zone, and coordinating with the United States on actual attacks on Gaddafi targets, there may be a breeze at the president’s back when he speaks tonight at NDU, if not exactly a full-blown wind. So far the Libyan incursion, and the NATO handoff that followed, have been as close to surgical as these things get for the U.S. military.

Much of the bipartisan debate that precedes his speech has been about what some lawmakers see as a brazen overreach of his constitutional authority. Much of that debate concerns a perceived confusion of motives. The stock question being asked by lawmakers and analysts: “Is this a humanitarian mission or a military mission?”

Maybe the more important question stems from that one: When the spark for a possible humanitarian crisis is the avowed intention of a dictator to use his army to slaughter his own people, how can you address the humanitarian challenge without facing down the military challenge? How’s it possible in the real world to separate the two? On paper, in theory, it might be easy to effect differences between them; in reality, and clearly in this case, any distinction between them is artificial.

Critics of the White House actions in Libya have coalesced around their belief that Obama defied the language of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, which don’t specifically address or allow for regime change as a method for rescuing the Libyan people.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is big on drawing that line in the sand. “NATO will implement all aspects of the UN resolution. Nothing more, nothing less,” he said over the weekend. “Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Gaddafi regime.”

Another NATO official tried to reinforce a distinction without a difference, insisting that regime change was not the mandate. “NATO will always remain impartial. NATO does not take sides,” a NATO diplomat told Press TV.

But as a purely practical matter, it’s hard to see how the suffering of the Libyan people can be relieved without dealing with the source of that agony. “Impartial”? NATO-led and directed air strikes couldn’t be more partial — to the rebels fighting the Gaddafi regime, and the civilians who support them.

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The current debate over the president’s methods doesn’t address how the humanitarian and the military have historically pursued the same goals. More than once since the end of World War II, for example, the United Nations itself has reinforced its wider pacifist intentions with boots on the ground under blue helmets, from Israel to Korea, from the Suez Canal to El Salvador, from Cambodia to Mozambique.

Any answer to the other burning question — “What happens if it all goes south?” — is purely conditional on events on the ground. But the continuing expansion of NATO membership to nations well beyond the organization's  historically European contour, and the military experience of its original signatory nations, are sound reasons for NATO to take the lead in Libya. They’ve certainly done no-fly zones before. NATO enforced one over Bosnia in early 1994, stopping  Serbian atrocities by air; and NATO forces directed another no-fly campaign, over Bosnia-Herzegovina, for more than two years.

The assumption of primary Libya responsibilities by NATO would just continue the extension of NATO’s scope, something that’s been in progress in fits and starts at least since the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact in 1991.

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By acting in Libya, the White House and the NATO coalition have certainly averted not only additional deaths at the hands of Gaddafi’s forces, but also the kind of escalating, wide-scale crisis that would call for a huge humanitarian footprint of airlifts and aid distributions in the middle of an armed conflict.

The administration will have to address the dark fears and suspicions of those who, on the basis of historical evidence, think the United States’ real concern in Libya is more about the country’s vast oil reserves than the plight of its people.

Setting aside the cynicism built into assessments like that, it’s reasonable (or certainly predictable) that obeying the humanitarian reflex can have benefits beyond the humanitarian; geopolitically enlightened self-interest is not to be ignored. The mechanized nations of the world deserve to be concerned when an oil-rich despot’s actions against his own people, and their reactions to him, could turn Libya into a killing ground for months to come.

Protecting that oil — more than 63 years’ worth, for domestic consumption — also means insuring that the Libyan people have an economic foundation on which to build a post-Gaddafi Libya.

And U.S. concerns over oil needn’t be just viewed through an economic lens. With more than 47 billion barrels of proven oil reserves at Gaddafi’s disposal, the potential has existed, until very recently, for his forces to destroy some or much of that reserve as an act of monstrous spite — compounding military and humanitarian challenges with an environmental challenge that would complicate either of the others by orders of magnitude.

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When the president speaks tonight, he’ll be compelled to offer the nation an explanation of what’s happened already with U.S. forces in yet another global conflict, and where we go from here.

Whatever the specifics of his rationale, whatever grief he gets from Congress and the conservative media echo chamber, he can take comfort in having attached the United States to an internationally-sanctioned action consistent both with its loftiest principles and its most brutally pragmatic interests — an action preventing attacks on civilians that, according to both of the UN resolutions, “may amount to crimes against humanity.”

There are few things easier for a president to defend.

Image credits: Obama: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press. Rasmussen: Press TV. UN peacekeeper: Mikhail Evstafiev.

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