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Judging Obama’s Libya speech: 4 key answers (it all boils down to strategy)

The United States, its allies, and its coalition partners have been at war for over a week now. For political, ideological, and legal reasons, the White House is reluctant to use the terminology of warfare, so Obama administration spokesman Jay Carney resorted to acts of linguistic contortion, terming the conflict "kinetic military action" and "time-limited, ...

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

The United States, its allies, and its coalition partners have been at war for over a week now. For political, ideological, and legal reasons, the White House is reluctant to use the terminology of warfare, so Obama administration spokesman Jay Carney resorted to acts of linguistic contortion, terming the conflict "kinetic military action" and "time-limited, scope-limited military action." But make no mistake; we are at war. If we are to prevail, we must be clear-headed in articulating our aims and formulating a strategy to meet them.

Like most, I'm eager to hear what President Obama has to say in his speech on Libya tonight. As someone who has devoted the better part of his career teaching and practicing strategy, here are four questions I will be looking to him to answer.

What changed? For a month, as opposition to the Qaddafi regime in Libya swelled, Obama and his advisors pooh-poohed the notion of a no-fly-zone over Libya. Then, a week and a half ago, with momentum having shifted in favor of Qaddafi and his mercenaries, he seemingly had a sudden change of heart. I, like others, will be looking to the president for an explanation as to why military action makes sense now, as opposed to two weeks ago.

The United States, its allies, and its coalition partners have been at war for over a week now. For political, ideological, and legal reasons, the White House is reluctant to use the terminology of warfare, so Obama administration spokesman Jay Carney resorted to acts of linguistic contortion, terming the conflict "kinetic military action" and "time-limited, scope-limited military action." But make no mistake; we are at war. If we are to prevail, we must be clear-headed in articulating our aims and formulating a strategy to meet them.

Like most, I’m eager to hear what President Obama has to say in his speech on Libya tonight. As someone who has devoted the better part of his career teaching and practicing strategy, here are four questions I will be looking to him to answer.

What changed? For a month, as opposition to the Qaddafi regime in Libya swelled, Obama and his advisors pooh-poohed the notion of a no-fly-zone over Libya. Then, a week and a half ago, with momentum having shifted in favor of Qaddafi and his mercenaries, he seemingly had a sudden change of heart. I, like others, will be looking to the president for an explanation as to why military action makes sense now, as opposed to two weeks ago.

What are our aims? What is our strategy? The great Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, wrote nearly two centuries ago, "No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it." It appears that we have done just that.

I’m looking to the president’s speech to articulate a coherent set of political objectives and a strategy to achieve them. To date, the administration has advanced different, even conflicting, aims. Obama has stated that Qaddafi must go, suggesting that the ultimate goal of the United States is regime change. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has argued that the conflict is a particularly violent form of humanitarian intervention. The strategies to achieve these aims are different, even contradictory. Both, however, presage a protracted commitment to the region. Qaddafi, a man who has American blood on his hands and thrives on confrontation with the West, cannot be expected to go quietly into the night. An administration that has made a point of avoiding open-ended commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan now appears to have embraced one in Libya, a country of lesser strategic consequence. I’ll be listening tonight to here why.

How will this war end? Clausewitz also counseled soldiers and statesmen not to take the first step before considering the last. In this vital strategic task, the Obama administration also appears to have failed. In a thoughtful piece in the Washington Post, Gideon Rose points to the need to articulate a vision for the future of Libya. President Obama had an opportunity to recover somewhat and put U.S. military action in context. Let’s see if he does.

To date, the Obama administration’s conduct of the war with Libya has been a lesson in how not to formulate and implement strategy. There is still, however, time to recover. And recovery should begin with a clearly articulated set of political objectives and a strategy to achieve them. Let’s hope we get them.

Thomas G. Mahnken is president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He is a senior research professor at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and has served for over 20 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

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