Obama instead chose to focus on quixotic themes like democracy and the “aspirations of the Libyan people.” But on this issue as in so many others in the Libyan war, the devil is in the details. It would be heartening to think that Qaddafi’s opponents are Western-style democrats-in-waiting, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, a Libyan rebel leader, recently revealed that the ranks of the rebels include jihadists who fought American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is consistent with the findings of American military researchers that Libyans, many with ties to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIGF) that has roots in the breakaway parts of eastern Libya, made up the second-largest cohort of foreign fighters in Iraq, after Saudi Arabia. The military’s West Point academy reports that while the LIFG is not officially affiliated with al-Qaeda, the two organizations share an “increasingly co-operative relationship.” Is it the “aspirations” of such allies that the U.S. is in Libya to defend?
A notable allergy to specifics aside, the address symbolized the president’s deep ambivalence about the use of American military power. In a version of Wilsonianism on steroids, he sought to cast the war as an idealistic intervention based on deep moral principle, at one point suggesting that the United States was fighting to give Libyans “freedom from fear.” (It is apparently not enough for the United States to make the world safe for democracy. We must make it safe from fear, as well.) Elsewhere in his remarks, the president invoked cold considerations of “national interest” related to an immigration crisis from the war and a spillover of regional instability to Egypt and Tunisia. Which was the real reason for America’s involvement? The president himself didn’t seem sure.
One point, at least, the president was clear: Libya was a multilateral war. Almost apologetically, he stressed that “the United States has not acted alone. Instead, we have been joined by a strong and growing coalition.” But this emphasis was a mistake. That is not only because the so-called international community backing the war has already collapsed, with the Arab League now airing doubts about the conflict and European powers like Germany refusing to take part at all, but because this multilateralism was overhyped to begin with. As Foreign Policy points out, the war’s coalition is “smaller than any major multilateral operation since the end of the Cold War.” The supposedly unilateral 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Obama again criticized last night, was backed by 40 countries, while only 15 have backed the Libyan mission.
More important, the fig leaf of multilateralism cannot disguise a muddled military policy. Lacking a clear sense of purpose and military intent, the president repeatedly has tried to justify the conduct of the war rather than its outcome. But it’s the latter that most matters to the American public. And if the president’s speech last night is the most clarity that the country will receive about the war underway in Libya, it won’t be long before it joins his defense secretary in judging it far from a vital national interest.
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