Op-Ed: Obama Administration Offers Contradictory Statements on Libyan Policy

George Berry, Staff Writer

The three-week-old no-fly zone in Libya marks a return to American participation in international security after the adventurism of the Bush years. The reasons for this are both the economic necessity of avoiding more war and good-faith efforts by the Obama Administration to work cooperatively. But intervening by U.N. sanction does not make the Obama policy level-headed, and the large amount of public disagreement within the Administration gives the dangerous impression of hasty decision-making. Although authorized by U.N. Resolution 1973 to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas,” the Administration has often talked of regime change and the possibility of arming rebels. These ideas taint the relative restraint of actions taken thus far and threaten to overshadow the good done by preventing a massacre in Benghazi.

Despite the fracturing of rebel military command and the increasing likelihood of stalemate, the idea of more intervention holds some sway with the Administration. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates shot down the idea of the U.S. providing weapons, but did not object to “somebody else” doing it. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned against the unknowns and possible al Qaeda connection, but stated that Qaddafi “must go as soon as possible.” Although the prospect is unlikely now, President Obama would not rule out supplying arms last week and affirmed that “it is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go.”

These statements are contradictory and out-of-step. If our policy is that Qaddafi must go, then it follows that we would commit some kind of resources to this end. But the Administration has pulled back after firing two hundred missiles in the early stages of intervention. If our cause in Libya is simply humanitarian, and if we are enforcing a resolution that attempts to protect civilians from being killed en masse, then Secretary Gates certainly would not be comfortable with others arming the rebels. If we really don’t know much about the rebels, as Secretary Clinton maintains, is it wise to support regime change or to consider selling arms?

President Obama cited the prevention of a “humanitarian crisis” as the main justification for using force without congressional consultation. “The words of the international community would be rendered hollow” if swift action was not taken. He is probably right, and some amount of intervention in Libya was the correct course — but the policy and goal, taken to be the sum of our leaders’ statements in the past few days, is inscrutable.

The situation on the ground is in constant flux: According to Le Monde, “Reconnaissance missions have taken place since the first days of March, before the beginning of intervention on March 19th.” President Obama confirmed that CIA have recent been sent to Libya — this indicates we do not know a lot about the rebels. What has been published is unencouraging: “There is still no sign that the rebels have a proper chain of command,” writes The Economist. The Washington Post also reports that the rebel government claims chief military leader, Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, has a “no-leadership role” after a dispute about coalition forces accidentally killing 13 rank-and-file. This threatens to cause a dangerous split among the leadership while the front swings along the Gulf of Sidra.

It is against this swirling backdrop that various top officials have expressed their hopes that Qaddafi will fall. The opposition is inchoate and less than two months old; Powerful men are defecting in different directions. In short, this does not seem like a society that would respond well to the chaos of governmental collapse.

While it is admirable that President Obama worked to build a strong consensus on this intervention, the discussion within the Administration has raised questions: At this point in time, is a humanitarian goal consonant with a policy of regime change? Bombing tanks is now a humanitarian task by the coalition’s definition. Has Libya become the chosen country for intervention simply because Qaddafi is unpopular and Libya has resources? The rebel government has already signed an oil deal with Qatar and assured Turkish contracts.

We have to remember that this humanitarian campaign in Libya was carried out contemporaneously with Saudi Arabia’s deployment of troops to Bahrain in order to shore up King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s hold on power. The U.S. urged “restraint” but maintained that it was “not an invasion” when convoys rolled into Bahrain to quell protests of the Shiite majority in a Sunni-ruled country. A juxtaposition of the goings-on in these two countries makes the West’s self-congratulatory language about Libya and the boasting of “universal rights” seem hollow. The confusion in the Administration — do we want to save civilians or get rid of Qaddafi — demonstrates that humanitarian concerns are only a small part of this intervention, and that the Administration’s internationalism does not signal a humanitarian turn in interventionist policy.