Obama’s gamble in Libya | Power & Policy

Obama’s gamble in Libya

By Nicholas Burns

By Nicholas Burns

I believe President Obama was right to take military action over the weekend to relieve the siege of Benghazi. Not doing so would have been a moral failure by the United States.

But President Obama and the coalition working with the United States in Libya have gambled in two significant ways that may come back to haunt them.

First, what is the coalition trying to achieve? Is there an agreed-upon mission?

Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Moammar Gadhafi's forces are fired on them on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (AP Photo)

Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Moammar Gadhafi's forces are fired on them on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (AP Photo)

I argue in more detail in an op-ed in the Boston Globe today that the conflicting U.S. descriptions of what the coalition is trying to do are troubling, to say the least. It is hard to reconcile the U.S. statements over the weekend that this is a limited campaign to protect Libyan civilians when we were, at the same time, bombing Qaddafi’s personal compound.

The United States has intervened in a civil war on behalf of one side. It will now be difficult if not impossible to detach ourselves from the rebel cause. This may complicate and limit our freedom of action as the conflict unfolds.

Second, who are the rebels? Do we have any idea of how they might govern should they topple Qaddafi? Have we met more than a handful of their leaders and thus have even the most rudimentary understanding of their motives, ambitions, and collective ideology, if one exists?

We have to recognize this situation for what it really is — the first time in American history when we have used our military power to prop up and possibly put in power a group of people we literally do not know. This may have been necessitated by the higher priority of blocking Qaddafi, but it is troubling and potentially problematic nonetheless.

See the op-ed for the more nuanced version. I welcome comments. This is a vitally important discussion for the future of U.S. foreign policy. The fuller the debate, the better.

About Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns is Director of the Future of Diplomacy Project and Faculty Chair for programs on the Middle East, and on India and South Asia. He served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008, leading the effort to reshape U.S. relations with India. Previously, he was U.S. Ambassador to NATO. Full bio >

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4 Responses to Obama’s gamble in Libya

  1. Eapen Chacko says:

    I share the concerns expressed in your penultimate paragraph: this is an unprecedented projection of our military power in the service of a misguided foreign policy. At the same time, though your comment about the “moral failure” of inaction might be widely held, under what moral framework are we exercising this power? Like it or not, Libya is a sovereign nation state, no matter how quirky or distasteful we might find Mr. Qaddafi’s leadership style. I don’t believe that we are acting to stem imminent genocide or systematic, ethnic cleansing in Libya. How can we claim any moral high ground?

    Instead, as you say, we are now open to Libyan propoganda about killing innocent civilian women and children, thus further inflaming anti-American sentiment throughout the Arab world. The push for multilateral support and the subsequent spat with NATO allies makes the U.S. look naive at best.

    Instead, we should have worked behind the scenes with Colonel Qadaffi to facilitate a graceful exit, even if it meant striking a devil’s bargain to meet his demands. At that point, the future claimants to power would have had to make their identities known, seeking a place at the table, and we could get to know who we were supporting. If Qadaffi survives, how much worse off will ordinary Libyans be for our arrogance and political grandstanding? If he leaves, will he be succeeded by something worse in a post-dictator coalition that includes our enemies?

  2. Paul Sabaj says:

    I agree with the comments above and hope that they are working behind the scenes to have a plan for after Qaddafi for a orderly transformation of the government. I just returned from Europe and the tide of people fleeing the war torn countries was staggering. I don’t know if the protests in Greece made the news here but it was the fact that some of our allies can’t afford a war and the displaced people that comes with it.

  3. Dr. ‘Femi M. Olufunmilade says:

    I agree with you on the point that Obama’s support for the military action in Libya is a humanitarian necessity. But regarding your seeming condemnation of the action on the grounds that it reeks of an attempt to bring to power a regime whose members and purpose the US hardly knows, I would say that point in no way negates the correctness of Obama’s intervention. Methinks, the best way to frame your misgivings is to say, well, the Obama administrations shall do well to see how it could constructively engage the anti-Gadaffi forces while no-fly zone enforcement continues. Even if a protracted civil war ensues in this case, I would say history ought to be kind to Obama still because he took the right decision. This is an humanitarian intervention first and foremost and it mattered little whether the people whose lives are being saved might some day root for an Islamic state or otherwise. Whoever they are, I don’t think they can be worse than Gadaffi vis-a-vis putting American interest in jeopardy. Gadaffi is a known devil and a terribly bad one at that. Taking sides with all the compelling moral imperatives against this known devil is a neat risk. In fact, it is an opportuned moment to take a decisive blow, firmly anchored on the diplomatic safety verves Joseph Nye couched as “four reasons to support Obama on Libya strikes”. The critical issue now is how to devise means of averting a stalemate between the warring parties in Libya. The right thing to do on this score is for the US to devise a modus operandi with some of its allies, to put what I may call decisive weapons in the hands of anti-Gaddafi forces. Anything short of this makes no-sense of no-fly actions in Libya.

  4. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    In the given circumstances and with a mind of having the history of hard power doctrine’s vicissitudes/exigencies that the US’s policy makers may have had in their support, one may still argue that the US policy makers with their coalition partners in the European Union are reflecting in their attitude ‘a quasi- Iraq war situation’ in Libya.The most pertinent fact is that to restore ‘a soft power image’ of protecting the civil /human rights of the people of Libya, the US government has been using the ‘hard power tactic’ by involving NATO’s mission in Libya’s territory. Could this method of intervention be ever accepted to the people of Libya and the international community?To me, this question remains/provokes a ‘policy enigma’ to the observers in the international civil society community. The supporters of pragmatism in US’s foreign policy can hardly encourage a policy of jumping to the conclusion of using the military -means instead of a workable diplomacy-mechanism.

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