Does Obama’s gamble make sense?

Does Obama’s gamble make sense?

The Obama administration’s decision to support a tough UNSCR on Libya at the very last minute has left me flummoxed. For weeks the administration has been talking down the various military options that now seem imminent. 

The administration claimed that it was illegal to arm the Libyan rebels, but it now appears that they quietly encouraged Egypt to commit this allegedly illegal act. The administration talked down a no-fly zone back when the rebels were strong and the moral and material support of a no-fly zone might have been decisive. Now they have joined in authorizing a much tougher no-drive zone that could involve substantially more air-strikes and associated collateral damage.

Throughout, the president has let others in the administration do the talking on Libya, and most of their talking has been negative. It has been widely reported that two of his principal national security advisors, NSA Donilon and Defense Secretary Gates, have strongly opposed military action. The administration as a whole has let others make the case for military action. And the administration has done little (the president, even less) to mobilize the public and Congress to support U.S. intervention.

How can this make sense? I see two possibilities.

Perhaps the Obama administration has cleverly figured out a way to bring about the neoisolationist fantasy of the 1990s: making the rest of the world shoulder the load of global policeman. Many of the critiques of U.S. military intervention over the past twenty years have been critiques of U.S. involvement, not military intervention, per se. The cases in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and so on were deemed not to be in our interest. Perhaps they required military intervention, but let someone else bear the costs.

The Bush 41 and Clinton administrations tried this, but were never able to get the rest of the world to handle matters satisfactorily. The United States was "indispensable," Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded. If we did not lead and shoulder the leader’s load it would not get done, whatever it was that needed doing (the East Timor exception that proved the rule notwithstanding).

In Libya, the Obama administration followed the old Bush-Clinton playbook, but stuck with it much longer. For weeks, nothing much happened. Hawks bemoaned the fecklessness. Doves praised the "strategic reticence." And Qaddafi steadily slaughtered the rebels.

Finally, the French and British couldn’t take it anymore and, just before the rebels couldn’t take it anymore, forced through the Chapter VII UNSCR that made military intervention imminent.

But intervention by whom? What if the Obama plan is to only do the easy bits (command and control, refueling and other logistics, overhead intelligence) and let the others do all the hard bits, including all the bits that are likely to lead to unwanted casualties, terrorist reprisals, and the like? What if his plan is to let the Europeans figure their own way out if things go badly?

If that was the plan, the last thing you would do if you were president would be to take ownership for this war by mobilizing public and congressional support. You would move on to other matters of state — long-planned regional summits, for example — and wish your allies well.

If things go well (which your national security team has led you to rather doubt), you can afford to let the others bask in the glory. If things go poorly, it will be clear that you had doubts from the beginning but you were just being a good multilateralist and letting others do what they felt it necessary to do.

I am not saying this is the right thing for a president to do. I am saying that this would make everything that we have seen more plausible.

Or perhaps the last few weeks don’t make sense. It may be that the Obama administration is willing to commit U.S. forces despite not preparing the public or the Congress for what would be the third major military attack on a Muslim country since 9/11 (something even the Bush administration shrank from doing). There is some evidence that the administration does, in fact, envision major U.S. involvement.

If so, they have their political work cut out for them. They must provide a rigorous rebuttal of the critics who have opposed military intervention (starting with the senior members of their own national security team). They must secure congressional buy-in (the Bush administration sought congressional authorization before going for U.N. authorization in Iraq — the Obama administration will have to do it the other way around). And they must mobilize public support.

Check that: the president must mobilize public support. If President Obama is committing U.S. forces (and prestige and resources) to this fight, he must also commit himself to leading the American public.

I think it would be folly for him to do what he has done in Afghanistan: mount a major escalation while doing essentially nothing to mobilize public support for that escalation. In Afghanistan, the president appears to have bet that political inertia would prop up public support long enough for the surge to work — and perhaps that bet was reasonable given the long commitment already in place to Afghanistan, and his own campaign rhetoric about a "necessary war." I don’t think that same bet is reasonable on Libya.

I suppose there is a third option. Perhaps the administration is extremely lucky. Perhaps the mere threats laid out in the UNSCR will be enough to tip the balance in Libya. The earliest signs give reason to hope.

Viewing the alternatives, I think the lucky option is the best one available.