Over the weekend, President Ba- rack Obama offered a pretty good synopsis of what the United States had accomplished during its weeklong involvement in enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.
He said that Libya’s air defenses have been “taken out,” and forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi have been pushed back from cities where the people have risen up against him. The president said a humanitarian catastrophe had been averted.
That could well be true, given that Gadhafi had warned rebels to lay down their weapons and seek amnesty or be annihilated.
Today, however, President Obama has to tell the American people not only what has been accomplished, but what the allied objectives are in Libya and when they can reasonably be expected to be met. And, most important to Americans, how large — or more accurately how small — a role Obama envisions for future U.S. involvement.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged Sunday that the Libya operation could last months. If so, the burden should be carried through those months by countries other than the United States. This country was drawn into Afghanistan by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Two years later, it dragged itself unnecessarily into Iraq. To the extent that Libya is a humanitarian effort, it is not difficult to rationalize the need for U.S. expertise in the early days of establishing a no-fly zone. But through the 20th century, Italy, France and Britain had greater stakes in Libya than the United States. In his address today, Obama must explain how Europe plans to carry whatever the Western burden in Libya might be.
This can’t be our war
The United States cannot afford financially or politically to wage war — even a limited air war — in Libya.
Domestically, at a time when bipartisan uneasiness about U.S. military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan is growing, any long-term commitment beyond diplomatic support for our European allies in Libya is untenable.
At various times in the past, war opponents have called for the United States to declare victory and leave. This is often easier said than done. Once there are boots on the ground and the infrastructure of war has been established — as it was in Vietnam and is now in Afghanistan and Iraq — walking away is not an easy option.
In Libya, however, Obama has the opportunity to declare the victory of U.S. technology and air power over Gadhafi’s anti-aircraft installations. The European powers and their pilots can thank us for our efficiency in making it much easier and safer for them to maintain a canopy over Libya that prevents Gadhafi from waging war on his own people. And the United States can concentrate on the work that has yet to be done in those trouble spots it already owns.