Monday, April 18, 2011


On March 25th I wrote that I could not understand the strategic rationale for the U.S. involvement in Libya, particularly considering similar situations in the Middle East where we have much at stake but where we are taking no military action and often taking little non-military action, particularly given what is at stake.

Events since March 25th have not made things any clearer.

There are many places in the world where despots are killing and otherwise oppressing innocent civilians. Moreover, in several of these places, such as Syria and Iran, the U.S. does have essential interests. I am not advocating military involvement in these places, at least not at this time. However, it is hard to understand our logic for not being involved in those two countries while being involved in Libya. The answer I previously came up with, and the only one I still have, is that there is little cost to being involved in Libya. Nobody likes the madman Colonel.

Some have commented that the fact that the Arab League backed the action is significant. Wow, a bunch of repressive dictators give the green light to take out another dictator who was a pain in the behind to them. That may provide some superficial cover, but it certainly is not a moral or even a good political basis for putting soldiers in harm’s way.

Others have pointed out that we engineered it so that other countries have taken the lead and we are in the background. So, somehow the action is more acceptable because it is a British or French or some other parent rather than an American parent who grieves over a dead soldier?

And now what? The job obviously is not being done. Khadaffi is still very much alive and in office, and it appears to be stalemate on the battlefield. NATO members are bickering over who is doing what and who, if anyone, should be doing more.  While there have been some improvements, the rebels are still far from being a well-organized, coherent fighting force, and there is some question as to whether they ever will be. Moreover, it appears that we still do not have a good handle on exactly who the opposition is and what they believe.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton repeatedly said at the outset of hostilities that Khadaffi had no legitimacy and that he had to go. Given his history, one questions why he ever did have legitimacy, and one also questions why Syria’s Assad retains legitimacy when his behavior in the face of rebellion mimics Khaddafi's pretty much down to the bullets shot at unarmed citizens.

But these are mere asides. The question is how does the president of the U.S. make these statements and then go onto say that it is not our objective to topple Khadaffi and that we are not going to take the lead in battle. While this may go over well on the home front and even amongst our NATO allies, and while its nuances and subtlety may be admirable in the foreign policy institutes in D.C. and Paris, it is confusing to many in the Arab world. It projects timidity and weakness.

 In the Middle East you do not make statements such as someone should go unless you fully intend to ensure that they do go, and unless you are willing to back your statements up with might. If you do not do this, you are not taken seriously in the next go-around. Better to say nothing than to say something and not fully and forcefully carry through if necessary. Much better.

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