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Obama talks big picture, not details on Libya

In his Monday evening address to the nation, President Barack Obama spelled out the justifications for military intervention in Libya and the structure of the mission going forward. But he chose not to address several lingering questions about the implementation of the policy that lawmakers and reporters have been clamoring for. "We knew that if ...

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In his Monday evening address to the nation, President Barack Obama spelled out the justifications for military intervention in Libya and the structure of the mission going forward. But he chose not to address several lingering questions about the implementation of the policy that lawmakers and reporters have been clamoring for.

"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," Obama said. "It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen."

In his Monday evening address to the nation, President Barack Obama spelled out the justifications for military intervention in Libya and the structure of the mission going forward. But he chose not to address several lingering questions about the implementation of the policy that lawmakers and reporters have been clamoring for.

"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," Obama said. "It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen."

The president emphasized that the American role in the mission would be transitioning to a NATO lead and he made clear that military mission stops short of the goal of ousting Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, though he reiterated that he will continue to seek Qaddafi’s exit through non-military means.. NATO will take over all aspects of the mission command and control on Wednesday.

"So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: the United States of America has done what we said we would do," Obama said. "That is not to say that our work is complete."

Most senior Republicans reacted to the speech by claiming there was a lack of clarity as to the objective of the mission and the timeframe. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) criticized Obama on Fox News for not clearly calling for regime change. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said through a spokesman that the speech "failed to provide Americans much clarity."

Obama didn’t directly address the congressional uproar over his decision not to seek legislative approval or at least consult more widely before authorizing the intervention. He also didn’t go into the weeds on the issues of the rules of engagement, how the international coalition identifies combatants, and whether or not the United States is going to arm the rebels.

All of the questions were on the minds of reporters at Monday afternoon’s operational briefing at the Pentagon. The briefer, Director of the Joint Staff VAMD William Gourtney revealed several new details about what the coalition is actually doing in Libya to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.

"The situation on the ground may be changing, but in the air we keep flying and in the sea we keep patrolling," Gourtney said, explaining that the rebels’ recent gains haven’t changed the military mission.

"We are not in direct of support of the opposition… and we are not coordinating with the opposition," Gourtney said.

But he also said that A-10 Thunderbolt and AC-130 gunship aircraft had been added to the mix of planes flying sorties over Libya. These planes are often used to provide close air support for ground troops, but Gourtney insisted they were chosen because they carry the correct munitions, not to be used for close air support.

At the same time, he admitted that the coalition had an expansive target list that includes lines of communication, command and control structures, supply lines, ammunition dumps, and storage facilities.

"Maybe it’s easier to ask what you’re not going after," one reporter at the briefing joked.

Gourtney said that U.S. planes were now flying less than half of the sorties, although they still fly more missions than any other single country by far. The U.S. military is also responsible for 80 percent of the refueling, 75 percent of the surveillance, and 100 percent of the electronic warfare.

These details complicated his message of the day, which is that the U.S. is removing itself as the lead player in the intervention. Gourtney also said the mission would benefit from greater contact with the rebels.

"We’d like a better understanding of the opposition," he said. "We don’t have it."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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