President Obama gave an impassioned, sometimes eloquent, defense of his policies in Libya tonight. But when it came to justifying the limited goals of the military mission, his speech was fundamentally dishonest. Obama presented himself as standing between two extremes--those on the one hand, who want to do nothing in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe, and those on the other who want to invade Libya the way George W. Bush invaded Iraq. The president declared:
Now, just as there are those who have argued against intervention in Libya, there are others who have suggested that we broaden our military mission beyond the task of protecting the Libyan people, and do whatever it takes to bring down Qaddafi and usher in a new government.
Of course, there is no question that Libya--and the world--would be better off with Qaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.
The task that I assigned our forces--to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a no-fly zone--carries with it a U.N. mandate and international support. It's also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do. If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.
To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq's future. But 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.
This is a straw man, and the president knows it. No serious person is arguing that we should "repeat in Libya" what we did in Iraq. No serious person is arguing that we should send hundreds of thousands of ground troops to march on Tripoli and topple Moammar Gaddafi they way we marched on Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein. What serious people are suggesting is that we help the Libyan resistance topple Gaddafi's regime--not by sending American ground forces to do it for them, but by providing them with arms, training, intelligence and air support. The Libyan rebels were well on their way to marching on Tripoli, until Obama's dithering at the United Nations gave Gaddafi time to drive them back to the gates of Benghazi. Now they are pushing west again, taking back towns and cities along the coast from pro-Gaddafi forces en route to the Libyan capital. How will Obama handle their offensive? Will he target Gaddafi's forces if they push back against this rebel offensive? Will he provide air cover to the rebels as they march toward Tripoli? If he does not provide air cover, and the regime stops the rebel offensive, how will he handle the resulting stalemate? Will American air power protect liberated enclaves of Libya from Gaddafi's forces, the same way we protected liberated enclaves in northern Iraq from Saddam Hussein? If so, for how long? A year? Five years? A decade? More? We don't know the answers to such questions, because the president spent all his time today shooting down arguments for military action in Libya that no one is making.
Another moment of dishonesty came when Obama described the "transfer" of the mission to NATO:
Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and the no-fly zone. Last night, NATO decided to take on the additional responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians. This transfer from the United States to NATO will take place on Wednesday. Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Qaddafi's remaining forces.
The president failed to mention what this means in practice: Come Wednesday we will transfer responsibility for the mission in Libya from an American general (Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command) to an American admiral (James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander-Europe). He might also have mentioned the other mission that we have handed over to NATO--the mission in Afghanistan. Feel like responsibility for the war in Afghanistan has been handed over to our European allies? If so, you'll love the transfer of responsibility for the war in Libya.
Such dishonesty is unfortunate, because the success of our intervention in Libya is critical. Until Sept. 11, the worst terrorist attack on Americans was the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, carried out on the direct orders of Moammar Gaddafi. If Gaddafi survives, he will not be the benign dictator who capitulated to the West and gave up his programs for weapons of mass destruction after seeing Saddam Hussein pulled from a spider hole. And if our mission in Libya remains as limited as the president suggested tonight, the chances of Gaddafi's survival will only grow. It would have been nice if the president had addressed these real challenges, instead of wrestling with fictional ones.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.