If it were an easy decision, someone who wasn’t the president would have made it by now. But even by the standards of a tough call, President Obama’s military intervention in Libya is complicated by an unusually large number of cross-pressures. Many are international; some are domestic; some are institutional; others come from the internal script he’s written for his presidency.
Two days after the airstrikes began, the president is being pulled in multiple different directions -- including the gravity of the course he’s laid out already. We’ll call them the “Status Quo” option, the “Withdraw/Admit Mistake option,” and the “Third Way” option.
The Status Quo
The forces arguing in favor of the current status quo -- a U.S.-led campaign to destroy the capacity of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s military to harm civilians, transitioning rapidly to an international (NATO & Arab countries) coalition that will police a no-fly zone -- include:
1. Some voices around Obama who see the potential for a genocide and believe it would be morally inexcusable to ignore it so long as the U.S. has the resources to arrest it. (Samantha Powers of the National Security Council, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton).
2. The major Arab television networks, which coalesced around a pro-regime change strategy a week ago or longer, and who the administration monitors as a window on the Arab “street.”
3. The desire to increase the legitimacy of international institutions like NATO and the United Nations -- one of Obama’s avowed foreign policy goals.
4. Stated U.S. policy, which is to see Qaddafi driven from power.
5. The formation of an organized rebel force that, with appropriate help, can achieve the U.S.’s stated policy.
6. Egypt’s people and new government, who do not want a refugee crisis or instability of any sort while they prepare for a new democracy.
7. Saudi Arabia, which is eager to assert its position as guardian of the faith, showing by arming the Libyan rebels that it is capable of standing up to Iran’s efforts to influence the outcome of the unrest in Bahrain and elsewhere.
8. The memory of U.S. inaction in Rwanda; the memory of ending the genocide in Bosnia.
9. The prevailing (if not entirely accurate) narrative of recent U.S. history, which is one of global leadership in the promotion of human rights.
10. Internal French politics; Nicolas Sarkozy, reeling from embarrassment that France was late to the game, is itching for this fight.
11. Preserving the special UK-U.S. relationship. When the U.S. asks Britain for something, it usually gets it. Now, just as the UK did with Kosovo in the Clinton administration, it is asking the Americans for something that is less than obviously within the orbit of U.S. national interest.
12. The time crunch, something Obama mentioned on Monday as a reason for the unusual way the coalition was put together. By this he means the rapid sequence of events culminating with his departure for Brazil.
13. The Arab League, which needs to prove to the protesters across the region that it is on their side and can stand up for Arabs (and not just enable their oppressors).
14. The risk of sending a message to other strongman leaders in the region that ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should have simply held out longer.
The Withdraw/Admit Mistake Option
The forces arguing against the status quo, and in favor of the president withdrawing from the military campaign in Libya, include:
1. The putative lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerous other conflicts. It is extremely difficult to spin down the apparatus of military engagement once it has been spun up; it is hard not to finish what one starts. If your stated policy is regime change but your military goal explicitly does not include regime change, the mission is confused and thus doomed to fail.
2. The Powell Doctrine, which calls for overwhelming force against an enemy to achieve a clear objective. Critics say that’s not in evidence here.
3. The strains on the U.S. military, which are intense.
4. Precedent: Obama’s refusal to intervene militarily in the Sudan, Iran, and elsewhere where dictators have brutally oppressed their citizens.
5. The likely multi-billion dollar cost of the engagement.
6. Pressure from the strategic thinkers in Obama’s national security regime, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who don’t want to set a precedent that the administration cannot live up to.
7. Russia and China already attempting to cast the intervention as an invasion by hegemonic U.S. forces; this view might take hold.
8. The fear that, if civilian casualties mount, Muslims and the Arab world will see the gambit as a Christian/Western invasion of them yet again.
A Third Way
Other forces are also exerting pressure on Obama, but not necessarily in the direction of either the status quo or withdrawal. These include:
1. Some Republicans in Congress, who (mostly) want the U.S. to finish off Qaddafi and keep its leadership role, rather than turn it over to a foreign coalition.
2. The view of Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who wants a strategy that is not tied to a U.N. resolution. “I am concerned that the use of military force in the absence of clear political objectives for our country risks entrenching the United States in a humanitarian mission whose scope and duration are not known at this point and cannot be controlled by us," McKeon said in a statement. "A United Nations’ Security Council resolution is not and should not be confused for a political and military strategy."
3. The Arab League, who endorsed a no-fly zone in concept but now say they believe they were sold a bill of goods, and want airstrikes limited to degrading Qaddafi’s ability to harm fellow Arabs.
4. The potential for enormous disruption to oil supply and demand regardless of whether the U.S. pursues its course or withdraws and admits it made an error.
5. The early signs that the “international mandate” of which Obama spoke is already fraying, which could necessitate a larger U.S. role in the operation rather than the reduced role that Obama has promised.
6. The need for Obama to assert his independence (in some fashion) from his general and flag officers, who seem to want (insist upon) a limited war.
7. American public opinion, which is confusing.