COMMENTARY | President Obama’s address to the United States on our military’s involvement in Libya left me feeling confident one minute and uncertain the next. If his speech was intended to clearly explain the goals of this mission, he seemed to hit the mark about half of the time.
President Obama described the United States as “an anchor of global security and an advocate for human freedom.” This immediately brought to my mind the humans who are by no means free in North Korea, The Sudan and other places around the world. What is our obligation to these people? I have never quite understood the reasons for getting involved in one country’s mess while staying clear of another that seems to be equally horrific. The president attempted to answer this nagging question.
The United States may be reluctant to use military force to solve crises abroad, especially because of the costs involved, the president said, but “when our interests and values are at stake,” it’s time to take action.
I understand our values being at stake. As much as we sometimes gripe about our own government and what we consider to be unfair laws, rules or taxes, we enjoy a basic right to argue freely, without fear of being jailed, beaten or worse. It seems clear over the last several weeks, and over the course of the 40-year regime of Muammar Gaddafi, that Libyans have not enjoyed that same freedom. Those who oppose Gaddafi and want a more democratic government have had to endure relentless attacks by Gaddafi’s forces. It’s estimated that thousands have been killed in just the last several weeks.
What’s more, some of our own journalists had been detained, harassed and abused. In fact, the United States recently advised against sending American journalists to cover the situation in Libya. This can certainly be a compelling case for the use of military force to ease the situation.
While America’s values are being compromised in Libya, what exactly are our interests in that country? Certainly, we’d like to oust a dictator who has not been very respectful of his people or the rest of the world. However, I do not know what our direct interest is in making this happen in Libya, and the president’s speech did not make that clear to me.
He did explain how Libya’s unrest could affect the region. Because Libya lies between Egypt and Tunisia, a massive influx of refugees from Libya to those countries could upset the very delicate regime-change processes that are now going on. The president added that the democratic changes that are starting to take effect in the Middle East would be overshadowed by the massacres and unrest in a torn Libya. This does make perfect sense. Whether it is the United States’ business to make sure that doesn’t happen is debatable, but that is the situation with every military action. We question why we should or should not intervene in another country’s business.
Another area where President Obama seemed to blur the lines was regarding our country’s role in the military actions. The president stressed that he took the initiative to get this mission off the ground, but only after securing a coalition that included some of our closest allies. Unlike the war in Iraq, we were not about to go this one alone, or with a very small group of allies by our side. Instead, we had France, the UK, Canada, Italy, Turkey and other countries, as well as the Arab League, pledging their support.
The president also stressed that while the United States led the decision to take military action, it would ultimately have a supporting role in the ongoing process to bring peace to Libya. Indeed, NATO has now taken command of the arms embargo and no-fly zone that have been imposed. Yet it seems unclear how much of a behind-the-scenes role the United States will be able to take. Can we really step back and play more of a humanitarian role after leading the charge to stymie Gaddafi and his forces?
Finally, there’s the uncertainty of what we, as a country, really want to happen with Gaddafi. The president said that he made it clear early on that Gaddafi had lost the support of his people and that he should step down. But how will this happen? Obama was quick to point out that he would not put troops on the ground. The monetary burden for our country would be too great, and the responsibility put upon American soldiers would be heightened. “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” the president said. “We are hopeful about Iraq’s future,” but the process of creating relative peace and overseeing a government transition there took eight years, nearly a trillion dollars and thousands of lives, Obama said.
What happens if this turns into another Iraq of sorts? What if troops are in Libya long-term, and what if the United States finds itself on the ground in Libya at some point? Will the president be able to explain how and why that happened? Or will he simply refuse to let it happen?
And so, this mission appears to be about peace and security: ensuring the safety and well-being of the Libyan people while putting pressure on Gaddafi to leave. It is always noble to fight for another’s freedom, although it’s difficult to reconcile the use of military action to make that happen. That is the nature of conflict, and even President Obama cannot escape such situations. He can, however, be very clear about the mission, the reason for it and how it will impact his fellow Americans. I listened to President Obama’s speech and felt myself wading through somewhat murky waters.