from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Before a President Speaks

March 7, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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It is a serious problem for the United States when our top officials make categorical statements and then do nothing to enforce them. On February 28 the secretary of state said this about Libya:

"Colonel Qadhafi and those around him must be held accountable for these acts, which violate international legal obligations and common decency. Through their actions, they have lost the legitimacy to govern. And the people of Libya have made themselves clear: It is time for Qadhafi to go – now, without further violence or delay."

On March 3, the president added his own voice:

"Going forward, we will continue to send a clear message: The violence must stop. Muammar Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave. Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable. And the aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity must be met."

These statements raise an interesting question about Qaddafi’s “loss” of legitimacy, to which both officials referred. When exactly did he have that legitimacy, and how did he earn it? He held power, but that is a different matter entirely.

But the larger problem is that these statements by the president and secretary of state do not appear to animate U.S. policy. “Lots of people throw around the phrase of ‘no-fly zone,’ and they talk about it a though it’s just a game, a video game or something, and some people who throw that line out have no idea what they’re talking about,” said the new White House chief of staff, William Daley. Secretary of Defense Gates has come close to mocking those who would use military power, calling discussion of a no-fly zone “loose talk.” Considering that this “loose talk” came from among others Sen. John McCain, whose military experience is a bit more impressive than Gates’s or Daley’s, these comments were offensive: not an argument but a substitute for argument.

Just where the administration now stands is, accordingly, unclear. The president has gone as far as he can go rhetorically, but apparently without any plan to turn his words into reality. That’s always a mistake for an American leader, and one that must give our allies around the world the shakes.

It must also cause wonder among Americans, who are footing the bill for our military establishment. Total military spending for FY2011 was $739 billion, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Total Libyan defense spending was somewhat lower. And some parts of the Libyan air force and air defense system are not operational, while others have now defected to the opposition to Qaddafi. It is very difficult to believe that enforcement of a no-fly zone is beyond the capacity of the U.S. military, or that it is a very hard project. Sen. John Kerry suggested that a one-time cratering of runways could make most of Libya’s remaining air force unable to take off.

The president should decide these things before he speaks, not weeks after.

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