Libya: No End in Sight

A Libyan elderly man holds a portrait of a relative which, he says, was killed by the Gadhafi regime on March 6, 2011 outside the court house of Benghazi

On March 19th, an American president commences bombing in order to destabilize a dictator in a far-away region of the world. Our goals are to prevent him from harming his own people, to prevent his actions from spreading chaos in a region and to see regime change in his country.

In 2003, it was George W. Bush initiating our conflict in Iraq. In 2011, it was Barack Obama committing to a no-fly zone above Libya. The approach toward international collaboration has been different and the stated scope of this mission is different, but there is also a shiver that runs up my spine about what is the same: We’re entering a military conflict in the Arab world and don’t know our end goal.

President Bush had always stated a simple end-game: remove Saddam Hussein. More than seven years later, we are still embroiled in the security efforts of a country that has seen devastating loss of civilian life and civil strife since our stated mission was accomplished. President Obama’s objective seems just as straight-forward: Impose a no-fly zone, as approved by a host of international organizations. But what happens when a bloody ground war continues in Libya despite a successful no-fly zone? What happens if American military personnel are downed and captured? What happens if our allies lose heart, as the comments of former chair of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, suggest may quickly be possible? 

No doubt, the President and his military and diplomatic advisers have plans for each of those scenarios. Maybe those plans involve us getting more deeply involved in a Libyan civil war, or afterward in nation-building efforts. Maybe there is a clear way our allies take the lead to prevent this from looking like an American invasion. But all those scenarios are obscured from the public view of the American people. We don’t know what our leaders are committing to.

And that, in a way, is indicative of a real difference between 2003 and 2011. In 2003, the nation had a long stretch to evaluate and debate Bush’s march toward war. In the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2003, everyone weighed in. The evidence justifying the war was based on deception, the politics of fear were on display – but by the time we went to war, the President had been forced to outline an approach to international affairs. We knew the Bush Doctrine, and whether we agreed or disagreed, we knew what Bush wanted to do.

What will Obama commit to? What options is he setting aside as he commits to this operation? How far will this President go in pursuing this campaign? There isn’t a clear Obama Doctrine yet.

Ross Douthat of the Times has described this as “a very liberal intervention” highlighting the difference between the Obama approach and that of his predecessor: 

“In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.”

This description, which goes on to some criticism at the hands of this conservative columnist, is nevertheless as coherent an encapsulation of the Administration’s approach as any we hear from the Administration itself. It does portray a process for deciding military action that a liberal interventionist would support.

But it shouldn’t take a conservative columnist to explain Democratic foreign policy. The President’s “days, not weeks” expectation for this mission sounded farfetched the moment he said it. It’s something you say to mollify the public, not educate them; to dismiss concerns rather than engage them.

I am not opposed to military action around the world, though it must be a last resort, not a first one. In cases of emergency need, quickly corralling international support, as the President and Secretary of State Clinton did, is a must. But I don’t understand how far we are willing to go. I don’t believe the American people have been asked what they are willing to invest – to sacrifice – and for what goals. I am not convinced we’ve answered “why here, why now” and more than we’ve answered “why not everywhere?”

And those concerns take me back to 2003 again, which is what scares me most of all.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."