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US May Resume Leadership in Libya Mission despite Domestic Opposition

Jun 13 , 2011

After more than three months’ military intervention in Libya, NATO has largely shifted its objective from enforcing the no-fly zone to coercing a regime change. In the public debate within the US, however, opposition to the nation’s military involvement under “Operation Odyssey Dawn” seems to be getting more louder than it was weeks ago.

Strongest opposition comes from the Congress and many Congressional scholars who claim that the US’s Libya mission has ignored the 60-day deadline of use of Armed Forces without express consent of Congress, as mandated in the War Powers Act of 1973. They also contend it has violated the UN Charter which requires that, in participating in a UN military operation, nations must act in accordance with their own constitutional processes. Because the US’s Libya mission lacks both domestic and international legitimacy, they emphasize, timely measures must be taken to “restore constitutional government.” The number of House members who voted to rebuff President Obama — including almost 40% of Democrats, making it 268 to 145 — in a June 3 non-binding House resolution well signals this overwhelming disenchantment.

The second school of opposition, libertarian think-tankers and some key players in the Obama administration, are more concerned about the US’s national interest. They argue that it is already bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and simply cannot “afford a third war.” Moreover, Libya is practically one of the least urgent issues on the US’s agenda as Qaddafi was “supposedly defanged” in 2003. Therefore continued US military involvement in Libya will only encourage a free-riding Europe and benefit those competitors who would rejoice in seeing the US more deeply trapped in the region. Even if Qaddafi is toppled and democratization ensues, the future of Libya will remain very unpredictable given its weak government institutions, divisive interests among tribes and groups and, above all, many pro-terrorism Islamic cults lurking in the country. Therefore, they insist the US minimize its military engagement before a long-term strategy is made in dealing with a Libya in transition.

A third school of opposition targets President Obama’s credibility, noting that he explicitly said during his presidential campaign that “the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” The Libya case, ostensibly, is neither an actual nor imminent threat to the US. Besides, President Obama declared in his March 28 speech that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” but on May 19, he changed his tone by envisioning the transition to a democratic Libya “when Qaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power.” If President Obama so easily forgot his words to the American people, some ask, will he observe the UN Resolution 1973 that clearly forbids “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory?”

Coupled with the ever stronger opposition is a subtle shift of focus in mainstream media’s coverage on the Libya mission. Such gushy titles as “Time’s Up, Qaddafi!” and “Finish the Job (of Deposing Qaddafi)” in the New York Times and Washington Post silently gave way from mid-May to “Daunting Task for NATO in Libya as Strikes Intensify” or “Business Leaders Fear Chaos after Qaddafi”, mirroring the stalemate in the Libya mission and a cooling public zeal for the “Arab Spring.”

Facing such public criticism and misgivings, the Obama administration seems to be pursuing for now a Watch-Closely-and-Act-Cautiously strategy in Libya: first, it sticks to NATO leadership while maintaining its military involvement to foster disintegration of Qaddafi’s loyalists; second, it keeps providing logistic and financial support to the rebels while trying to understand their objectives and approaches in a post-Qaddafi era; finally, it joins some European allies in alienating Qaddafi from international society while refraining from formal recognition of the rebel government. In short, the Obama administration expects that such attrition efforts can end Qaddafi’s rule without necessitating the use of ground forces or putting too much commitment onto itself.

Nevertheless, as the impasse in NATO’s Libya mission persists, there is growing concern that the US will have to resume leadership in the Libya mission and eventually deploy ground forces. As a matter of fact, few ardent advocates of intervention in early March could predict that the operation would last this long—and could be much longer without the use of ground forces or a “lucky strike to eliminate Qaddafi.” Now that there is no consensus within NATO for sending ground forces, and the Arab states show little interest in providing troops, a British reporter commented on May 19: “The conflict is likely to draw out for many years, as we’ve seen in Somalia, Darfur and Iraq.” If that happens, then only the US has the leading power — and maybe an intrinsic need — to reunite NATO for a ground mission in Libya.

A Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) report says: “Regardless of views about the initial decision to intervene, now that the President of the United States has said Qaddafi must go and deployed the US military into harm’s way, the impact on US standing and moral authority in the Middle East and the world would be devastating if Qaddafi is allowed to cling to power.” Or, as US Senator Joe Lieberman said in March: “We (simply) can’t afford to let him stay in office.” The turnout of votes on another House resolution on June 3 serves as a perfect footnote: only minutes after passing the resolution to rebuke Obama, the House defeated a resolution by 265 to 148 that insisted the President begin a withdrawal of troops immediately, thus leaving a door wide open for the US to escalate its military involvement when NATO has by and large failed in its mission. 

Whatever the outcome, the Libya Crisis, as it has drawn much of the West into the tribulation and hardships of enforcing democracy by force, once again bolsters the image of a self-interest-oriented US. As Marina Ottaway, Director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said: “The US always preaches values that it cannot live up to…In the end, its interests come first.”

Zhang Zhexin is Assistant Researcher at SIIS and Visiting Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center.

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