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Promising clarity on Libya, Obama delivers confusion

Barack Obama's speech on Monday, which updated the American public on the war in Libya, was both important and exasperating.

Barack Obama's speech on Monday, which updated the American public on the war in Libya, was both important and exasperating.

The president offered his clearest view yet on the parameters guiding American involvement overseas, to the extent that we now have an "Obama Doctrine" to ponder. At the same time, he highlighted goals in the Libya crisis that show why his doctrine is unlikely to work.

One passage in particular captured Mr Obama's attitude towards involvement in Libya, but it will also shape other American foreign military interventions: "We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves," the president said. "We also had the ability to stop [Col Muammar] Qaddafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground."

Mr Obama thus offered a paradoxical strategy of aggressive multilateralism, tempered by a deep sense of America's limitations. He explained: "American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well."

Intellectually, Mr Obama's modesty, like his sound desire to strengthen America domestically before pursuing great ambitions overseas, is interesting. Historians will one day count the president as an eloquent progenitor and paladin of American imperial decline. Mr Obama is right that near financial insolvency at home is a fatal impediment abroad. The only problem with his reasoning - other than the fact that by too readily bending to American vulnerabilities he actually risks accentuating them - is that Mr Obama may let pass an essential moment allowing him to mitigate the bleakly anticipated downturn in American power.

Here is why. America has a vast reservoir of "soft power", through an ability to embody, better than most, ideas such as liberty, democracy and equal opportunity. In his speech Mr Obama argued that one facet of America's rejuvenation was the understanding that "our own future is safer, our own future is brighter, if more of mankind can live with the bright light of freedom and dignity".

But has the president taken that notion to its natural conclusion? In reality, Mr Obama, so realistic about American shortcomings, has allowed the grim recognition of America's inadequacies to neutralise his administration's ability to exploit the sweeping changes taking place in the Middle East.

When Mr Obama affirms that Col Qaddafi must go, but that regime change isn't the objective in Libya, he really just comes across as confused. By taking a back seat militarily in Libya, as the president announced that it would, the US makes it more probable that the Libyan conflict will descend into a grinding, bloody stalemate. Nor is the European lead in the Libya mission, through Nato, reassuring. France and the United Kingdom seem equally muddled over its ultimate objectives. If this stalemate follows, Mr Obama's doctrine will be utterly discredited.

Multilateralism is not an end in itself; it is a means toward an end. But what end is in sight for the Obama administration?

Whenever they have been called upon to address the substance of their epistles of liberty - in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, even Iran and Israel - American officials have faltered. Libya may reconfirm Washington's ideological emptiness: that Col Qaddafi must go, but by default he might stay on even though he represents a mortal danger to the very people we have vowed to protect. What a convoluted message from an American president. Of what value is finicky multilateralism if the upshot is a deadlock that merely allows America to indulge in its own decay?

Mr Obama still cannot get over Iraq. Justifying his decision to avoid engaging in regime change, the president said: "To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq ... regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."

But Mr Obama compares two very different situations. He should have mentioned Iraq in 1991 instead of 2003. Libya isn't about the US choosing between going to war or not doing so, as Iraq was under the George W Bush administration.

The United States is already engaged in the Libyan conflict - one not of its choosing in the same way that the Gulf War two decades ago was not of its choosing. Therefore, the US must accept the logical political corollaries of its intervention. It makes no sense to defend Libyan civilians while refusing to overthrow their sanguinary tormentor, any more than it made sense for the George H W Bush administration to call Saddam Hussein a threat to the Gulf region, before allowing him to butcher his own people and then consolidate his rule after Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.

Mr Obama is losing authority among his allies in the Arab regimes and among the region's rising democrats because he speaks out of both sides of his mouth. All too frequently Washington seems irrelevant to the region's changing dynamics today - despite Mr Obama's new, supposedly thoughtful, doctrine that it's all really just about the US doing less than more.

But what will Mr Obama say if his purported campaign of compassion in Libya stalls - and Nato demands more from him? The president will have to craft a new doctrine validating his debilitating inconsistencies.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, listed as one of the 10 notable books of 2010 by the Wall Street Journal

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