Globe Editorial

Obama’s forthright defense of a necessarily limited war

A rebel at a checkpoint in Libya yesterday. A rebel at a checkpoint in Libya yesterday. (Andrew Winning/ Reuters)
March 30, 2011

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A PRESIDENT who decides to place American troops in harm’s way, even in an action as circumscribed as the current one in Libya, owes the public a candid and complete explanation. Considering that the UN Security Council resolution authorizing all necessary measures to protect civilians in Libya contains a hearty dose of what diplomats call constructive ambiguity, President Obama went about as far as he could go Monday night in telling Americans what the mission is in Libya, what the US role will be from now on, and what an acceptable outcome might look like.

The prime virtue of Obama’s address was its reasoned defense of a military action that is limited in scope, rooted in a clear idea of collective security, and based upon the principle that the burden must be shared. This may be something short of an Obama doctrine, but it does offer a sensible model for the use of American power “when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are,’’ as the president put it.

An obvious gap in Obama’s speech concerns the endgame in Libya. Should the coalition oust Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy on its own? Obama is justified in calling for Khadafy’s ouster but stopping short of committing the United States or NATO to that aim. It’s not America’s or NATO’s job to remove a dictator. It’s the job of Libya’s people, and the rebels must coalesce behind leaders who can succeed both in overthrowing Khadafy and providing a stable, legitimate government to follow him. This is a difficult task the Libyan opposition must contemplate on its own.

However it ends, the US involvement in Libya provides a template for building coalitions to combat future crises that fall short of national-security threats. It has the international legitimacy that comes from a UN Security Council resolution and an Arab League call for a no-fly zone. And though US forces took the lead in establishing the no-fly zone and are still providing most of the mid-air refueling and surveillance capabilities and all of the electronic warfare, as of today all operations are being conducted under NATO command.

Major risks remain, including the possibility of longer-than-anticipated military involvement should Khadafy stage a renewed offensive or should a civil war follow his ouster. The wisdom of America’s engagement in Libya will ultimately be judged by the outcome in that country. But for now, Obama deserves plaudits for avoiding the trap of unilateral action, demonstrating that the United States can use its unparalleled military power for humane ends, and placing this country squarely on the side of the Arab freedom movement.