President Obama has taken severe criticism from all sides for his response to the crisis in Libya. Neoconservatives and Cold War liberals both demand a more forceful intervention to defend American interests and protect Libyan civilians. Paleoconservatives and left liberals are both critical of any involvement in that country, on grounds that we are already fighting two wars on questionable justifications; we don’t need another such war.
But Obama has so far pursued a distinctive course between these two poles. Unlike George W. Bush, he has not bought into the rhetoric of spreading democracy by force, nor has he acted unilaterally. Rather, his administration carefully negotiated international support for a limited intervention. The Arab League’s request for imposition of a no-fly zone was critical to avoiding the appearance of Western imperialism. Getting a Security Council resolution involved bringing Russian and China on board, and means that the intervention is legitimate in terms of international law.
Initially, the intervention did serve its stated purpose of preventing Qaddafi’s forces from seizing additional territory and endangering additional people. Now, though, the conflict appears stalemated. The rebels are calling for more aggressive support; Qaddafi demands cessation of the outside intervention. The US has pulled back from the leading role in the operation, leaving front line operations largely to the French.
This inconclusive and ambiguous situation raises two issues: what are Obama’s real objectives, and is he moving toward meeting them?
It seems clear from statements by Obama and Secretary Clinton that the administration really does want to seen Qaddafi gone, and would be willing to work with a successor government drawn from the opposition, even though not much is known about the latter. So even though the declared objective of the international intervention is not regime change, it is reasonable to assume that Obama really wants it.
Is he making progress toward that objective? On the face of it, no. The forces are stalemated, the rebels are fragmented and militarily weak, and Qaddafi is defiant. However, that defiance may conceal weakness, as manifested in high-level defections from the regime, and reported feelers seeking a negotiated settlement.
It’s just possible that things are going pretty much as the administration intends. That is, Qaddafi’s position is deteriorating, he will ultimately fall, and Obama’s fingerprints will not be on the deed. If that’s the way it’s coming down, it would be a textbook case of covert action as it should be conducted, that is, covertly.
Time will tell. If it happens this way, you heard it here first. If not, I know nothing.