President Obama has fundamental questions to answer in his address Monday night from the Department of Defense.
First, he needs to explain in greater detail why he ultimately decided to establish a "no fly zone" over Libya. Second, he should tell us why he insisted that the Arab League and United Nations Security Council endorse such action, but not the U.S. Congress. And third, he needs to explain, once and for all, what he will do and will not do to help Libyan rebels overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.
This is particularly vital in light of Secretary Gates’ comments Sunday on "Meet the Press" that while Gadhafi’s removal is our ultimate goal, it is not the purpose of the coalition's military operation.
Further, the president should explain how long we are likely to be involved in military efforts in Libya, what this “kinetic military action” is likely to cost, and what he and the administration hope to achieve through these actions.
But there are even larger questions that require attention -- questions that almost no one in the Administration has addressed in a serious, sustained way.
Mr. Obama needs to explain what our overall policy is with respect to the Middle Eastern uprisings engulfing the region. What is our ultimate goal? What are we trying to achieve? What constitutes success and what constitutes failure?
More generally, while he may not want to articulate a formal doctrine regarding the use of force, it is critically important for him to explain when and under what circumstances he is prepared to use force to avert other humanitarian disasters and to accomplish our national security goals. Unless and until he does this, the president risks losing further domestic support for actions that appear to lack logic, consistency, or a larger strategic purpose.
In his Nobel Prize speech in Oslo in 2009, Obama said that a "just” preventive war was one waged "as a last resort or in self-defense," whose level of force was "proportional" and whenever possible, a conflict in which civilians were "spared from violence."
For those of us who supported his decision to create a no-fly zone in Libya to save the lives of protesters whom Gadhafi threatened to crush like "cockroaches"-- the same language used prior to the genocide in Rwanda -- he should how and why his use of force in Libya is consistent with his Oslo definition.
He also needs to explain clearly what the administration's overarching standard is for humanitarian intervention because he is apparently unwilling to use force to save civilians lives in Bahrain, Yemen or Syria.
We think that the president should not have one template for all the Middle Eastern uprisings -- that each state is different, and involves different interests and stakes for America. Because of this, the president should make it clear that his decisions with respect to intervention will be made on a case-by-case basis.
This is the president’s most effective response to those who accuse him of "opportunistic humanitarianism" based on his intervention in Libya, but not in other Arab states where civilian protesters are being killed.
In Yemen, the president should encourage Saudi Arabia and the Arab League to take the lead in dealing with the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is growing increasingly isolated. U.S. intervention might prove futile or counterproductive and give Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula a chance to strengthen its terrorist network there.
Ditto Bahrain. Obama should explain that the Sunni king of Bahrain, despite having killed protesters, is a stalwart ally and home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Yes, King Hamad bin al-Khalifa was wrong to have fired on peaceful protesters, and yes, Obama should continue encouraging him to grant greater representation and rights to his 600,000 people, almost 70 percent of whom are Shiites-- some most probably with ties to Iran. It is these presumed ties to Iran and their fears of a Shiite led government that led the Saudis, against American objections, to send troops to the region to shore up the regime.
But the Al-Khalifas have provided an ever increasing living standard and a relatively open, vibrant society for many of his citizens for many years.
In Syria, the president should indicate that we will not intervene because we are highly unlikely to achieve our objectives-- notwithstanding that regime's brutality toward its own citizens, its support of international terrorism, as well as its enduring and increasing ties to Iran.
To be sure, Mr Obama has tried to engage Syria with only the most limited success. After September 11th, Damascus did share some intelligence with Washington on Islamic extremism. It has also kept its Golan Heights border with Israel quiet. But President Bashir al-Assad has pursued its nuclear ambitions relentlessly and has helped arm two of Israel's implacable foes, Iranian-funded Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Although Secretary Clinton called Assad a "reformer" Sunday and suggested that the U.S. would not use military force against his regime, Assad's government has also ferried arms to insurgents in Iraq, supported assassinations (including a prime minister in Lebanon) and terrorist attacks against its enemies.
Mr. Obama should be absolutely clear and unambiguous that unless Assad shifts his policies, his regime with be treated like the menace that fellow Arabs know him to be.
But while the president should continue to urge Assad not to kill and jail his growing number of critics, he should rule out any use of American force against Syria, simply because we do not have the resources or ability to achieve our goals on our own. That being said, it is important, once and for all, for the President to speak out against the Assad regime and to hold it accountable for its increasingly brutality and repression.
Finally, we would like to hear President Obama unveil an ambitious non-partisan democracy-promotion agenda that would seek to help young liberal Arab reformers create the tolerant, democratic and economically productive societies they crave. America has much to offer in helping Tunisia, Egypt, and others create and strengthen building blocks of democracy -- political parties, the rule of law, civic institutions, and tolerance for minorities and minority views. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have think tanks prepared to offer advice, training, and support in this crucial area.
The State Department has increased funding for such efforts for Egypt, but such assistance is something the president can trumpet as a concrete sign of America’s commitment to freedom for those courageous enough to rise up.
Such an initiative would also help President Obama shed his image in much of the world for indecisiveness and dithering. Americans want a president who is cautious and prudent, but not passive. And they want a leader who makes his goals and agenda clear. They don't want the next leader of the free world, as it has been in the Libyan crisis, to be France.
Read all of Judith Miller's columns on Pundicity.com.
Douglas Schoen co-authored this article.
Schoen is a political strategist. His most recent book is "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.
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