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Obama Statement on Libya Leaves Many Questions

I listened to President Obama’s entire statement on the situation in Libya, and I still don’t know what he has planned. I know that he extended the demands on Gadhafi. This is no longer about just protecting the people of Benghazi, “a city of 700,000 people.” Obama explicitly said that all attacks must stop – there’s some question of whether Gadhafi is honoring the cease-fire – as per the UN resolution. But he also said that Gadhafi’s forces must pull back from other cities, that supply lines must be established to them, and that humanitarian supplies must be allowed in. And he intimated that the credibility of the international community is on the line. “The words of the international community would be rendered hollow” if they did not act to stop Gadhafi.

So we know that there will be military action to enforce the resolution. But while what Obama listed as demands appears to go mostly within the lines of the text of Resolution 1973 – humanitarian supplies are referenced, as well as attacks against civilians beyond Benghazi – I still don’t know what happens if all of that is fulfilled. Because you’d still have a situation where Gadhafi is in power in at least Tripoli, and a rebel force in power in other major cities. There’s talk in the resolution of a solution “which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people,” but since they tagged Gadhafi for crimes against humanity, I can’t see how any solution would include him. So is this regime change? That’s not mentioned in the document. Explicitly, the resolution excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory,” and that would seem to exclude Special Forces operating in concert with Libyan revels.

The President was clear that ground troops would not be committed, that the British, French and Arab League would take a leadership role and that they would help bear the responsibility and the cost. Indeed, I would expect British and French planes to be the first flying over Libya. Moreover, the President said that “Change in the region will not be imposed by the US or any foreign power, but driven by the people of the Arab world… Our goal is focused, our cause is just and our coalition is strong.”

I cannot discern the goal, however. It certainly sounds like regime change when it comes out of the mouth of the French government:

Earlier François Baroin, a French government spokesman, told RTL radio that action would come “rapidly,” perhaps within hours, after the United Nations resolution authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.

But he insisted the military action was “not an occupation of Libyan territory.” Rather, he said, it was intended to protect the Libyan people and “allow them to go all the way in their drive, which means bringing down the Qaddafi regime.”

I think it’s important to understand the stakes here. Because the President is committing the nation – and this is mandatory under the UN Charter – to what certainly looks like a multilateral regime change mission in Libya.

UPDATE: US officials have clarified their position somewhat:

The purpose of the no-fly zone, the administration official said, is to prevent Gadhafi from attacking his own people.

“It’s not designed to have him go. That’s not the purpose,” the official said. “The purpose of the military action is to prevent massive humanitarian loss of life, to stop the violence. If the violence stops, then you shouldn’t leap to say then the military action will continue until he leaves.”

This appears to put the US at odds with the French, which adds a whole new set of issues. And where does this leave things in Libya? In a perpetual state of detente? We need peace talks immediately.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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