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Support for Obama's Libya policy, but questions about the rebels

Posted by Rob Anderson  March 23, 2011 01:01 PM

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In a Globe op-ed column yesterday, former US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns raises a question about President Obama's Libya strategy that should give even the president's most ardent supporters some pause: This is "the first time in American history," Burns notes, that "we have used our military power to prop up and possibly put in power a group of people we literally do not know."

Burns ask some fairly obvious, and important, questions about the ragtag Libyan opposition battling longtime dictator Moammar Khadafy:

[W]ho are the rebels? Do we have any idea of how they might govern should they topple Khadafy? Have we met more than a handful of their leaders and thus have even the most rudimentary understanding of their motives, ambitions, and collective ideology, if one exists?

Despite this major qualification, Burns still believes the administration "has made a significant, positive difference in changing the direction of this bitter war."

Joseph S. Nye, Dean Emeritus of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, agrees, at least when it comes to Burns' overall assessment of the operation. (Although Nye has recently come under scrutiny for meeting with Khadafy and one of his sons in 2007, he has argued that the Obama administration was right to support the Libyan rebels.) On the Kennedy School's Power and Policy blog, Nye writes that although "humanitarian intervention is a dangerous process," the administration has acted responsibly:

1. Qaddafi posed a clear and present danger of slaughter of citizens in Benghazi – witness his threat of “merciless” acts. We have a responsibility to protect such citizens when we can under the UN’s R2P resolution that we agreed to in 2005.

2. The American action is not unilateral and that reduces both its costs and burdens. Obama was right to let the French and British take the lead.

3. Legitimacy is crucial. The costs to our soft power are too high when it is absent. In this case, the resolutions by the Arab League and the UN Security Council were key. That makes this case more like Bush 41 in Iraq rather than Bush 43 in Iraq. Ironically, in this case, even Al Jazeera – which is widely watched in the Arab world – is on our side.

4. Obama has been careful to specify limited objectives and to suggest a limited duration.

Nye does caution the administration, however, to limit the scope of the operation. Though the rebels may be a largely mysterious force at this point, the president should make it clear to them, Nye argues, that "Libyans will have the responsibility of removing their tyrant."

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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