Rewinding a few weeks, President Obama had a decision to make in response to the attempted revolution in Libya. He could have said, “We watch events with concern. We will use all the diplomatic and economic means at our disposal to influence the situation, but (let me be clear!) this is not a case where U.S. military power will be used.” There’s a strong argument to be made that that would have been the correct approach. After all, U.S. forces are fighting in Afghanistan, are still in harm’s way in Iraq, and have been in action against al-Qaeda types with varying degrees of secrecy in other locales, including East Africa and Yemen. North Korea continues to represent a potential war that might explode at any minute; and then there are all the humanitarian missions the U.S. military is performing, and so on. In other words, there were very good reasons for Defense Secretary Robert Gates to be extremely reluctant to get U.S. forces engaged in Libya at all.
However — never one to be terribly decisive, and even less so since the elections last November [see Frankly, Barack Obama doesn’t give a damn] — President Obama chose from the beginning to “keep his options open.” He was under pressure from the Europeans and some here at home to use the influence of the U.S. to dislodge Gaddafi/Qaddafi/Khaddafi. When in doubt, Obama always chooses to lean on rhetoric rather than action or even decision. And this turned out to be where he effectively painted himself into a corner, stating on March 3rd that Gaddafi “must leave.”
It was neither a decision nor an action, but rather just the words that Obama figured the world wanted to hear from him. He continued to resist calls to impose a no-fly zone (which at that stage would have protected rebels from harsh attacks soon to come from Gaddafi). However, having stated that Gaddafi “must leave,” he had now put his own and America’s credibility on the line. Pressure was now bound to increase to take action — and it did, not least from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who would now be able to use Obama’s own words against him in making her case for military force.
In the end, President Obama agreed to use U.S. military power, in league with the French, the British, and other stragglers. It’s becoming apparent that what he sought to do was split the difference in a carefully calibrated manner: The U.S. would use its cruise missiles and some limited manned aircraft to take out Libya’s air defenses. The French and British would thereafter take the lead on enforcing the no-fly zone and hitting Gaddafi’s military assets on the ground. The U.S. would therefore get involved, but not too involved.
The trouble with attempting to calibrate the level of violence in which one is willing to engage is that one can only really control one’s own actions. One cannot control the reactions of one’s foe; nor, for that matter, can one completely control the actions of one’s allies. Two examples here: Gaddafi might expand the war at his own whim. He could potentially try to take it outside of his borders. He could potentially use chemical agents, inside or outside of Libya. Both scenarios would demand urgent action by the player on the scene with greatest resources and capabilities: the United States. As for one’s allies: the French, with considerable economic interests tied up in Libya, have been gung-ho all along to get involved (although unwilling to act without the U.S. umbrella). Their eagerness to be the major players and to control the outcome could likewise lead to unforeseeable actions and reactions on the ground, which could conceivably put the U.S. in the position of having to get more deeply engaged.
Obama has described this as “limited military action” to “protect Libyan civilians.” Yet, far from being a well-defined goal, that is the most ephemeral goal of all. Libyan civilians are likely remain at risk, from a variety of forces, for a long time to come. Where does U.S. responsibility end?
The cold fact is that President Obama has led the U.S. into a war in the Middle East without congressional approval, without any significant period of public debate, without any clear end point, and one where U.S. power appears to be effectively subordinate to allies who have their own agenda. It was his trademark indecisiveness that painted him into the corner of this calibrated war (a war being fought against Gaddafi, but one where we are apparently not allowed to try and kill Gaddafi). Is his decision-making ability likely to get any sharper as war-time events take their own course?