Libya: The Politics of Intervention

Barack Obama addresses the situation in Egypt on February 1, 2011.

Following the imposition of a no-fly zone on Libya by the UN Security Council, President Barack Obama gave a speech Friday outlining what the United States will and will not do to counter Moammar Gadhafi's brutal regime, and the factors influencing his administration's decision.

A popular criticism of the Obama administration in recent weeks has been that its response to the Libyan crisis has been sluggish, the government perceived as idling while Colonel Gadhafi threatens and commits violence against his own people. But the president began his speech by saying the U.S. had reacted "swiftly" to the unfolding conflict. That might ring hollow with many detractors, but Dirk Vandewalle, a professor of Government at Rutgers University, said that considering the task of achieving international consensus, this response has been relatively quick.

"If you realize that in roughly the last two weeks, the administration managed to get a number of partners—the E.U., the Arab League, the African Union, the G8, and the UN Security Council, where China and Russia had to be coddled—they managed to bring all these partners togehter resutling in the Security Council resolution," Vandewalle said. "In a sense, it is quite speedy. Could it have been faster? Maybe, but that's looking in perfect hindsight."

President Obama was careful Friday to highlight his prerequisites for U.S. action, and what the scope of our involvement would be. The president said that the situation in Libya has escalated to a point where it threatens the stability of the entire Middle East, which has already been fraught with revolutionary turmoil for months. He mentioned the Arab League numerous times, which just last week voted unanimously in favor of implementing a no-fly zone. The UN resolution appears to have been the last domino that needed to fall.

Clearly, Obama has been trying to avoid jumping the gun, which is how many critics of the George W. Bush administration would characterize that president's forays into Iraq and Afghanistan. Consent from the international community was necessary for the president to present an image of reluctant determination; intervention in Libya has become necessary, but at least the U.S. won't be going it alone. Equally important, judging by the president's emphasis, was the resolution of the Arab League, suggesting that other Middle East nations would uncharacteristically welcome foreign involvement in the situation.

"Once the Arab League fell in and then the Security Council was willing to do it, you had the two pieces the administration had been looking for so it could argue it went in as part of multilateral force, not another action of the U.S. against a third Muslim country now," Vandewalle said.

The President said Friday that U.S. troops would not be deployed on the ground in Libya, saying the international community had a "well-defined goal" in ensuring the safety of the Libyan people. The president said he would not send the military beyond that goal.

However, Professor Vandewalle said that many questions remain unanswered. The no-fly zone is only the beginning; a promise to keep troops off the ground may be broken in the face of unforeseen consequences.

"What do we do if Gadhafi is serious about cease-fire?" Vandewalle asked. "Do we then not bomb? That doesn't really resolve the situation, so how do we get out of that limbo. If we do decide to intervene, and we push troops back from Benghazi, do we insist on going to Tripoli? Do we insist on removing Gadhafi at that point? There's a whole number of practical details now emerging that no one really had time to think about before this agreement was reached."