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The Slippery Slope of U.S. Intervention

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
August 11, 2014
Foreign Policy

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During his recent hour-long interview with the New York Times's Thomas Friedman, President Barack Obama mentioned something in passing when he described the need to be better prepared for post-conflict rebuilding and reconstruction before authorizing an intervention: "Our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do." Note the phrase I've italicized above -- it's an unnoticed but entirely remarkable acknowledgment from the commander-in-chief, because it is directly at odds with what he told the American people prior to, and just after, the start of the Libya intervention in 2011.

On March 21, 2011, Obama announced that the United States would pursue the formation of an international coalition to protect civilians from the security forces of Muammar al-Qaddafi: "I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing.... We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya." One week later, as the first bombs fell, he further described the U.S. mission: "The task that I assigned our forces [is] to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a no-fly zone," the president said. To which he added explicitly: "Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." That regime change was not the U.S. objective in Libya was repeated by the White House, State Department, and the Pentagon. As the White House spokesman famously argued, when asked why he would not call it a war, "It is a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners."

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