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The White House’s three worst assumptions on Libya

The White House’s three worst assumptions on Libya

Now that the United States has joined the French and British in attacking Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, the Obama administration merits our support.  I believe that this military intervention is the right thing to do, although I share the worries of many that it might have come too late. The White House’s weeks of vacillations emboldened Qaddafi, dispirited the Libyan rebels, vexed our allies, and lost valuable strategic ground in the fight for Libya’s future. Now the endgame is less certain. One hopes that the administration’s own contradictory messages on its strategic goals for the Libya campaign — is the goal just to protect civilians? strengthen the rebel forces? remove Qaddafi from power? preserve a unified Libya? protect a secessionist branch? — will be resolved soon, with a clear alignment of military and political objectives.

Meanwhile, when the administration’s senior team members get a much-needed moment to collect their breath and their thoughts, I hope they will reflect on some of their strategic and policy assumptions that preceded the Libya crisis. Three assumptions in particular stand out, each of which the White House appeared to embrace in its first two years, and each of which is flawed. These mistaken assumptions are:

1) The world wants the United States to listen, not to lead. Yes, a wise global superpower attends to the views of others. But from the presidential campaign up through the present day, the Obama team elevated this insight from a prudential consideration to a dogmatic article of faith. Related, this White House seems to have bought into an assumption of American decline that risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet as the Arab Spring has shown, and in particular the crisis in Libya, the world still wants and needs American leadership. Witness the palpable frustrations of the French and British over American dithering on Libya, or the desperate pleas of the Libyan rebels for American assistance, or the demands last month of Egyptian democracy protestors for American support. The world needs an America that listens and leads.

2) The bellicose Pentagon needs to be restrained from dragging America into further wars. During its first two years in office, the White House peddled the line that it was aggressively reining in the Pentagon, and preventing the military from needlessly escalating current wars (Afghanistan) or launching new ones (Iran). Thus the Obama team advertised the president and his staff reading Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster on the military’s alleged responsibility for the Vietnam War, and fed the spin to authors like Bob Woodward and Jonathan Alter that the White House had brought the renegade Pentagon to heel. This myth of a war-mongering Pentagon persists among the White House’s political base. I have heard multiple Obama supporters say in recent months that they view one of Obama’s greatest accomplishments to be "reining in the Pentagon" and "reminding the military he’s getting us out of Afghanistan." Yet in reality, the Defense Department, both civilians and military, does not have a monolithic view on the use of force. Opinions on the when, why, and how of military intervention vary as much among military leaders as they vary at the State Department or on Capitol Hill. If anything, the Pentagon is often more reluctant to employ force — witness the skepticism that Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen voiced previously about the Libya intervention. One step towards improved civil-military relations in this Administration will be for the White House to jettison this flawed assumption about the Pentagon. The Defense Department wants a clear alignment of political and military goals, adequate resources to do the job, and the Commander-in-Chief’s commitment to win the wars that it is asked to fight.

3) Foreign policy is not a top-tier priority. Considering the momentous global events of the past two months – the Arab Spring, war in Libya, the Japanese earthquake — January’s State of the Union address may seem like distant history. Yet when President Obama gave one of the biggest policy speeches of his presidency, the lack of attention to national security issues was noticeable, and intentional. Consumed with domestic economic and political challenges, this White House just did not want to devote much attention to foreign policy during the remainder of the president’s term.  Nor did they think they would need to; a mistaken assumption. It is perhaps this inattention that explains in part why the Administration has seemed continually behind the curve on events in the Middle East. Or why, as Peter Feaver has argued, the White House has done so little to maintain public support for the Afghanistan War. Regardless of his political preferences, President Obama now finds himself presiding over a very consequential time in global affairs. Congress, the American people, and the world need to hear more from him on what it means, and how the United States will lead.