It may have looked like President Obama’s trip to Latin America came at a bad time, what with a new war starting at almost exactly the moment when Air Force One went wheels up. But Obama was probably glad to get out of town. In fact, he might have preferred to go hide somewhere and wait until this whole chain-reaction of Middle East uprisings and impossible dilemmas ends. Unfortunately for the president, he cannot hide.
The president always shows the coolest of exteriors. Inside, however, he must be straining, pulled in different directions. Does America stand for democracy and freedom, or does it stand with its friends and allies, even when they are dictators? Does Washington protect American strategic interests or human rights? Does Obama, whose election campaign caught fire because of his opposition to war in Iraq, support peace, or does he go to war to stop a despot killing his people? Does the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize believe what he said in Cairo, that democratic aspirations “are not just American ideas” and because of that “we will support them everywhere”? Does he support peace or does he support democracy? Can he support both at once?
Of all the tectonic dilemmas, crashing interests against ideals, the one least laden with contradictions emerged in Libya. Unlike in Egypt, Bahrain or Yemen, those fighting tyranny in Tripoli were also fighting an enemy of America.
Still, for Obama, using America’s military to battle a third Muslim country was not just filled with political, military, ideological and diplomatic risks, it also meant breaking with some of his stated principles. The solution was to take cover under a multi-lateral mandate.
Obama, the un-Bush, would not go to war without international approval or without a credible coalition. Almost exactly eight years after the start of the last Iraq war, Obama, following the model of the first Gulf War, obtained a United Nations resolution authorizing military action.
Unlike 1991, however, America did not lead the world. Instead, the world prodded America until it agreed to follow. It took France and Britain and even the Arab League to persuade Obama to act. America may not want to lead, but without it not much happens.
The women in Obama’s foreign policy team persuaded him, then worked the diplomatic miracle of obtaining Security Council approval for “all necessary means” to protect Libya’s civilians.
The president’s ambivalence is one reason why the goals of the operation seem so hazy. In 1991 Washington wanted Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. In 2003 Bush wanted him out of power. Now, it’s not clear if success means overthrowing Moammar Gadhaffi or preventing him from killing civilians.
Despite the wording of the UN resolution, this war – it is a war – was not launched simply to protect civilians.
Protecting civilians is, indeed, an important goal. Without intervention, Gadhafi would have killed many more. But if preventing massacres were the driving motivation, we might have seen intervention in the past in Burma, Congo or Sudan.
Libya gave the West an opportunity to stand up for its values. After all, it’s not just Washington caught in this dilemma. Practically every European country looks a little red-faced, terrified that calls for democracy will threaten oil supplies or replace friendly dictators with anti-Western populists. Nobody knows where these revolutions will lead. But Libya is easier. Gadhafi didn’t just grind his heel on his own people; he also blew up airplanes full of Americans and Europeans.
Now history will show that the West took up arms against tyranny in the Arab world; at least in one place.
While the West deliberated, Gadhafi pushed back the opposition, sending a message to other despots that brutality can beat the uprising. That’s why after the carnage in Libya governments in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere started killing many more protesters.
Gadhafi’s success prior to Western intervention already hurt the chances for the opposition in Syria and Iran.
Using military might at this late stage brings many more risks to the West than it would have earlier on. With the rebels decimated, the United States and its allies find it necessary to get more deeply involved to achieve their goals, whatever they are. This will create resentment in the Arab world. And if Gadhafi digs in, ending the war could prove difficult. Wars are always filled with uncertainty.
For President Obama, now watching three wars, the wrenching international dilemmas will continue, whether he travels to far-off lands or stays home, keeping his cool demeanor under the growing pressure.