In hindsight, it is easy to think that the United States should have stayed out of the Libyan uprising and avoided the possibility of waging a third Middle East war while the first two go on and on. When the uprisings began, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, the rebellions were quickly successful, and their rulers quit. In Libya, too, a likely rebel victory seemed possible until Col. Moammar Gadhafi began attacking and killing his own people. The shocking slaughter convinced many, including President Barack Obama, that a brief intervention was essential.
That was the case the president made in a national televised address Monday evening. He was only partially convincing.
Many of the questions critics raise — especially, what is the final goal of U.S. intervention — remain unanswered. If they are not addressed soon, American appetite for the Libyan operation will quickly fade.
“Even after the president’s speech, it remains unclear what his ultimate goals are for ceasing America’s involvement in Libya and, therefore, what the definition of success would be in this conflict,” Sen Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
In attempting to address such concerns, the president was defensive and, more dangerous, came across as too optimistic. He wasn’t wearing a flight suit, but echoes of “mission accomplished” could be distantly heard throughout his speech.
“For those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: The United States of America has done what we said we would do,” the president said after repeatedly talking up the international involvement in the no-fly zone and assault on forces loyal to Mr. Gadhafi.
While the handover of operations to NATO on Wednesday is good news, it remains unclear how — and how long — NATO will work to remove Mr. Gadhafi from office.
“The American people need to know whether we will contribute to a prolonged military engagement with Libya, to what extent the alliance is contributing military assets, what the direct and indirect costs will be, and what the U.S. role in Libya means for our military already committed significantly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere,” Sen. Olympia Snowe said in a statement Monday. “The fact is that transferring this operation to NATO does not constitute an exit strategy.”
Whether we like it or not, we have passed the point of no return in Libya. The question, which shouldn’t be answered by the White House without constructive involvement from Congress, is what to do next.
The United States will do best to continue its limited involvement, helping where it can, but keeping as far out of Libya itself as possible. It remains to be seen whether President Obama can maintain this precarious balance.