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Obama's Libya Speech Will Bring Belated Clarity on His Policy

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
March 27, 2011
The Daily Beast


On Monday, President Obama is finally getting around to explaining exactly what he's doing in Libya, pulling together all the Libyan issues by the numbers—the way he should have from Day 1, before he and his team muddied the waters with daily policy updates. The speech, according to officials, won't commit to removing Col. Muammar Gaddafi by military force, nor will it sketch how Washington will transform the roiling Mideast into a democratic paradise. So most big thinkers in Washington won't be happy with it. But for the most part, the speech should satisfy those who are searching for a common sense and sustainable U.S. foreign policy.

Let's go through this step by step, the way Obama should have from the beginning. Tunisia and Egypt enjoyed popular uprisings, resulting in mostly peaceful changes in government. Another erupted in Libya, and Gaddafi promised to massacre the rebels. Given his track record of atrocities, this had to be believed. The situation became a potential humanitarian crisis. In most cases, the international community does nothing but blow smoke in such situations. In this one, several factors made action beyond economic sanctions and scolding possible: Everyone hated Gaddafi, and some military mission seemed doable at low cost. Then, much to everyone's surprise, the Arab League called for a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi from using airpower to decimate his opponents. Then, also surprisingly, Russia and China didn't veto a U.N. resolution calling for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.

In all these international authorizations, the sole goal was to protect people and prevent a humanitarian calamity. None of these resolutions in any way suggested action beyond silencing Gaddafi's air force, though there was implicit recognition that air power would have to be used to truly make the population safe.

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