The fog of war at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
The White House clearly has a problem on its hands. The launch of the military intervention with Libya has been messy at best. The fog of war is supposed to be restricted to the battlefield, but for the moment it seems to have settled in over the White House. Here are just a few of ...
The White House clearly has a problem on its hands. The launch of the military intervention with Libya has been messy at best. The fog of war is supposed to be restricted to the battlefield, but for the moment it seems to have settled in over the White House. Here are just a few of the contradictions and confusions swirling about at the moment:
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon was on the record as saying the U.S. had no strategic interests in Libya. Now, he must coordinate an American involvement that would be irresponsible unless indeed such interests existed.
The President and his team made it clear through their early remarks that America would not be in lead in this mission. But the Pentagon over the weekend let it be known that Americans were indeed in command but plans were being discussed for a hand-over at some unspecified point in the future.
The involvement of the Arab League was allegedly a critical catalyst for U.S. support, but military support has been slow to materialize, minimal when it has, and political opposition to key components of the mission — like bombing to neutralize threats on the ground — has emerged.
The involvement, according to the President and his team would be short, limited to protecting the Libyan people from Qaddafi. While the quick dispatch of Qaddafi would be the best protection for the Libyan people, other possible paths are just as likely at this point: a short involvement that leaves Qaddafi in place and Libya divided, which would be a very unsatisfactory outcome strategically and politically, or a long one that ends up in Qaddafi going to ground, resisting the rebels thanks to his considerable resources, and ultimately requiring a much more extensive international involvement than is currently contemplated. In short, the involvement is unlikely to be as neat nor its outcome as clear-cut in its benefits as was advertised.
The principle underlying the involvement was the protection of the Libyan people from abuse at the hands of their government. Syrian troops fired into crowds of their people this weekend: will the same principle soon apply there? In Yemen? In Bahrain? In Iran? In the Palestinian territories? It is impossible to imagine that it will apply in any of these places thus undercutting the idea that any principle was involved at all.
The President has argued he has consulted with Congress on his actions. The disagreement with this idea seems to begin on Capitol Hill where in one of the few bipartisan displays in recent months, both Democrats and Republicans have complained that what consultation that did take place was perfunctory and inadequate.
The President’s men are very agitated that the New York Times narrative that they were led to war by Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Gayle Smith and are now arguing the President was the leader of the move to act. While the final decision clearly rested with the President, the Amazons In-Charge narrative is going to be hard to dial back because these strong, capable women did actually drive the decision process against the opposition of Gates, Donilon, Brennan and others. Worse, the delay between the initial instance in which Secretary Clinton advocated the idea and the time it was ultimately implemented have created many complications that make the involvement much more difficult…and those delays are traceable to uncertainty on the part of the President and his close White House advisors.
The move to multilateralism was belied by a trip to Brazil in which the President effectively rebuffed Brazilian desires to win his support for their candidacy for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council — support he has already given to India. All the Brazilians got was a non-committal "we’ll look into it" and were left to digest why India was treated differently. The U.S. had wanted a more compliant Brazil on issues like Iran’s nuclear program, but the message to the Brazilians is that the Indians were rewarded strategically for undertaking a nuclear weapons program while the Brazilians who avoided this step were penalized for having a different opinion on nuclear issues.
Both India and Brazil abstained on the UN vote on Libya making the distinction between the two even more hard to defend. This issue by the way offset within Brazil’s government whatever perceived "success" the Obama trip has had via photo ops for the President in Rio favelas. Combine this with the forced resignation of the US Ambassador to Mexico this weekend and you have a pretty lousy week for U.S. Latin relations coinciding with a presidential trip to the region that was optically very difficult given the entire Libya issue.
The White House needs to be decisive and move quickly to undo the problems of the past few days. The President began the process of trying to address these issues during his press conference in Chile, but the real heavy lifting will begin when he arrives again in Washington. At that point, both he and the American public will have a clearer picture of the situation on the ground in Libya.
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