Marc Lynch

Why Obama had to act in Libya

Why Obama had to act in Libya

"We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen."  

This was the blunt, powerful heart of President Obama’s speech last night explaining American intervention in Libya: had the international community not acted when it did, thousands would have been slaughtered as the world watched.   The effects of that decision would have been felt across the Middle East, where America would have been deemed to have abandoned the people struggling for freedom in the Arab world.  And it would have quite simply been wrong. I have long been conflicted about the decision to intervene militarily, primarily because of the absence of a clearly defined end-game and the risk of escalation. I doubt that Obama’s speech will convince many of his critics. But I now think that he made the right call.

My conversations with administration officials, including but not limited to the one recounted by the indefatigable Laura Rozen, convinced me that they believed that a failure to act when and how they did would have led to a horrific slaughter in Benghazi and then across Libya.  There was no mad rush to war, and certainly no master plan to invade Libya to grab its oil.  The administration resisted intervening militarily until they had no choice, preferring at first to use diplomatic means and economic sanctions to signal that Qaddafi’s use of force would not help keep him in power.  The military intervention came when those had failed, and when Qaddafi’s forces were closing in on Benghazi and he was declaring his intention to exterminate them like rats.  

And my conversations with Arab activists and intellectuals, and my monitoring of Arab media and internet traffic, have convinced me that the intervention was both important and desirable.  The administration understood, better than their critics, that Libya had become a litmus test for American credibility and intentions, with an Arab public riveted to al-Jazeera.  From what I can see, many people broadly sympathetic to Arab interests and concerns are out of step with Arab opinion this time.    In the Arab public sphere, this is not another Iraq — though, as I’ve warned repeatedly, it could become one if American troops get involved on the ground and there is an extended, bloody quagmire.  This administration is all too aware of the dangers of mission creep, escalation, and the ticking clock on Arab and international support which so many of us have warned against.  They don’t want another Iraq, as Obama made clear…. even if it is not obvious that they can avoid one. 

The centrality of Libya to the Arab narrative about regional transformation is the main reason why I am unmoved by the "double standards" argument that we are not intervening in Cote D’Ivoire.  It did matter more to core U.S. national interests because the outcome would affect the entire Middle East.  Thanks to al-Jazeera’s intense focus on Libya, literally the whole Arab world was watching, dictators and publics alike.  Not acting would have been a  powerful action which would have haunted America’s standing in the region for a decade.  And many of the same people now denouncing the intervention would have been up in arms at America’s indifference to Arab life — it is all too easy to imagine denunciations such as "the dream of the Cairo speech died in the streets of Benghazi as Barack Obama proved that he does not care about Muslim lives." 

The double-standards argument applies more forcefully to Bahrain, where attempts to mediate a negotiated reform package fell apart in favor of Saudi/GCC intervention and a descent into nasty sectarianism.  Obviously the naval base in Bahrain and its strategic importance to Saudi Arabia are decisive factors.  And the U.S. is paying a price for that failure with parts of Arab public opinion and with many regional analysts, as it should (though al-Jazeera’s limited coverage and the unfortunate popularity of the sectarian Sunni-Shi’a narrative blunt that edge slightly). The double-standards argument about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still there and strong.  One of the most frequent points I hear made in the Arab arena is still "where was the No-Fly Zone for Gaza?"  The U.S. pays a political price for that, and if a new Israeli war breaks out with Gaza or Hezbollah, and the U.S. is forced to take sides, then this may very well wash away all the administration has done to try to engage and build partnerships with the newly empowered Arab public.   Those are real problems — but neither of them should mean that the U.S. can’t at least get Libya right. 

That doesn’t mean that there are no problems.  The administration hasn’t done a great job communicating its position, particularly on the question of whether or not Qaddafi’s departure is the goal (I personally think it has to be).   While I hope that today’s London meeting will produce more clarity on a political path forward, I haven’t seen much to suggest one yet.  I’m still very worried about the endgame, that Qaddafi might hold on and drive a problematic partition or that the U.S. and NATO will be tempted to escalate with ground forces to prevent such a hurting stalemate.  I worry about second-order effects across the region, including the likely terminal impact on the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program since Tehran can see clearly that Qaddafi’s deal with the West did not buy him long term support. But I also see the potential upsides of a successful intervention.  And then there’s the push to apply the Libya model to Syria or Iran or even Saudi Arabia, which most people understand would be disastrous but which may well soon confront the administration whether it likes it or not. But for all of that, I feel that the U.S. did what it had to do, when it had to do it.