Nine days after the United States and its allies began military operations in Libya, President Barack Obama on Monday night delivered a compelling defense for intervening and a nuanced plan for moving forward in a supporting role as NATO assumes command of the operations. He persuasively argued that military action was necessary to stop the massacre of civilians and continued to distinguish between that humanitarian aim and ousting Moammar Gadhafi by force. The practical reality, though, is that those efforts are interwoven and that the rebels have little hope of removing the tyrant without the airstrikes by coalition forces.
The president's 30-minute speech at the National Defense University in Washington provided some clarity that should have come earlier. With revolution sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, he defined the limits of the Libya mission. He distinguished his approach from the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq and trigger a regime change by unilateral force. He emphasized the quick organization of the broad-based coalition, and he argued it is in America's interest to prevent Gadhafi from slaughtering Libyans and to protect the emerging changes in Egypt and Tunisia from a flood of refugees.
"There will be times … when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are,'' Obama said. "In such cases, we should not be afraid to act — but the burden of action should not be America's alone.''
Obama had been under pressure from members of Congress from both parties to better define the United States' role in Libya. Already mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation has neither the human nor financial capital to make a long-term commitment to a third armed conflict. The president made clear that he will keep his pledge not to deploy ground troops in Libya and that the nation's military involvement will indeed be limited. But on the ground, the battle between Gadhafi's army and the rebels will continue until Gadhafi is ousted or the rebels are defeated. And while the rebels have advanced, they are not likely to succeed without sustained air attacks by the NATO forces.
As the president spoke, rebels were rapidly advancing west toward Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte with the help of NATO airstrikes. But Sirte is a Gadhafi stronghold that will not be easily taken, and fighting there is likely to result in heavy civilian casualties.
There was talk Monday night that the president's speech marked the emergence of an Obama doctrine. That may be premature. The president was clearer in defending his actions regarding Libya than in defining how he will respond as Syria and other countries implode and more civilian lives are at risk.