- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
The president is tiptoeing through a mine-field of conflicting imperatives, seeking to justify a war that he has launched even though there are no vital strategic interests at stake. And make no mistake: it is a war. When your forces are flying hundreds of sorties, and firing missiles and dropping bombs on another country’s armed forces, it is Orwellian to call it anything else.
It is a war being fought for humanitarian objectives — and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that — but the president’s somewhat tortured parsing of the reasons for his action betrays an awareness that he’s on shaky ground. And notice that almost all of his justifications were anticipatory in nature: we went to war to prevent a potential bloodbath in Benghazi, to prevent evens in Libya from possibly affecting developments elsewhere in the Arab world, and to forestall some future tarnishing of America’s reputation. When you are as strong and secure as the United States really is, everything becomes a "preventive" operation. (Too bad we don’t think that way when it comes to financial matters). Ironically, if the United States faced real threats to its security, it wouldn’t be wasting much time or effort on operations like this one.
My main objection to the speech was that Obama lied when he said the United States would only pursue regime change through "non-military means," and when he said that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." In today’s New York Times, for example, we find the following lede:
Even as President Obama on Monday described a narrower role for the United States in a NATO-led operation in Libya, the American military has been carrying out an expansive and increasingly potent air campaign to compel the Libyan Army to turn against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi."
In other words, no matter what Obama said last night, the United States is in fact using its military forces to produce regime change in Libya. And notice also that Obama’s carefully parsed wording — his willingness to use "non-military means" leaves open the possibility of covert action by the CIA, or even CIA-operated drone strikes. I’m not shocked by the president’s "misspeaking" in this fashion, because leaders lie all the time and he’s got to pretend to be conforming to the U.N. Security Council Resolution. But we shouldn’t be taken in by this particular deception.
My second observation about the speech is that it probably didn’t make much difference what Obama said last night. Because this was clearly a war of choice, what matters is not the justification that he provided for it or the ways he attempted to assuage concerns about possible precedents, the risks of getting bogged down, etc. What matters is what actually happens in Libya over the next few weeks or months. If Qaddafi is soon ousted and the rebel forces can establish a reasonably stable order there, then this operation will be judged a success and it will be high-fives all around. If a prolonged stalemate occurs, if civilian casualties soar, if the coalition splinters, or if a post-Qaddafi Libya proves to be unstable, violent, or a breeding ground for extremists, than Obama’s eloquence last night will be disregarded and his decision will be judged a mistake.
Words and justifications do matter on occasion, but in the end its results that count.