Obama Must Explain Why We Went to Libya

Thursday, 07 Apr 2011 12:03 PM

By George Will

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Several weeks ago, when President Obama reportedly assured congressional leaders that America's intervention in Libya would involve "days, not weeks," skeptics mistakenly worried about mission creep. They should have feared mission gallop.

Or perhaps mission meander. At about this point in foreign policy misadventures, the usual question is: What is Plan B? Today's question is: What was Plan A?

When Obama inserted America into what was, and ostensibly still is, a pre-emptive war to protect Libyan civilians from Libya's government, he neglected to clarify a few things, such as: Do the armed rebels trying to overthrow that government still count as civilians?

That is, however, irrelevant if the assumption is that no Libyan is safe as long as Moammar Gadhafi is in power. If so, regime change is a logical imperative of humanitarian imperialism.

Have you noticed how many of the U.S. armed services' recruiting appeals, on television and in advertisements in airports and elsewhere, show this or that service engaged in humanitarian relief operations, distributing food and medicine? These present the U.S. military as the Red Cross with, for reasons that are unclear, weapons. Given that some of the services sometimes seem reluctant to recruit for their primary mission — maintaining a credible capability for war — it is not so odd that the Obama administration flinches from the word "war."

The administration has retired the short-lived and redundant obfuscation "kinetic military action," which supposedly described what all those warships and war aircraft were doing with all those munitions. It validated George Orwell's axiom (in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language") that "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity."

Now the administration must decide how to characterize those on whose behalf we have gone to war. They are rebels, and America, born in rebellion and culturally disposed to skepticism about authority, is inclined to think kindly of rebels. This was particularly so during the 1960s, especially on college campuses.

On one of them, Antioch, the students, full of idealism and empty of information, gathered to watch "To Die in Madrid," a documentary about the Spanish Civil War. When the narrator intoned about a column of soldiers, "The rebels advanced on Madrid," the students cheered, unaware that the rebels were Gen. Franco's fascists.

Not all rebels are admirable, so when the administration said there would be no American boots on the ground in Libya, it left room for American shoes worn by CIA operatives. Evidently some are now among the insurgents, humming a Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein tune:

"Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me."

Perhaps the CIA operatives should have stayed home and talked to some senators who seem to know what's what. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., refers to the Libyan rebels as part of a "pro-democracy movement." Perhaps they are. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., must think so. Serving, as usual, as Sancho Panza to Sen. John McCain's Don Quixote, Graham said last Sunday (on "Face the Nation"), "We should be taking the fight to Tripoli."

But not (yet) to Yamoussoukro, capital of the Ivory Coast. Members of the Congressional Libyan Liberation Caucus — it does not formally exist (yet) — presumably subscribe to the doctrine "R2P." That is the accepted shorthand for "responsibility to protect." This notion is central to humanitarian imperialism, a project that certainly promises to provide steady work.

The Libyan venture is coinciding with a humanitarian disaster in the Ivory Coast, where corpses are piling up by the hundreds and the fighting is producing displaced persons by the hundreds of thousands. They will have to make do with U.N. and French interveners until America's humanitarian imperialists can get around to them.

Obama's inability, or reluctance, to say clearly why we are involved in Libya or under what conditions the mission might be said to have been accomplished has occasioned comparisons with Iraq. A more apposite comparison is to Jimmy Carter's invasion of Iran — a nation twice as large as France — with eight helicopters. This became emblematic of a floundering president out of his depth.

As Calvin Coolidge, who knew his depth, was leaving the presidency in March 1929, he said, "Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business." Before an administration can do that, it must define its responsibilities and competence with sufficient modesty to acknowledge that some things are not its business.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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