Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2011

What have Americans learned since Barack Obama's quick decision on March 18 to intervene in Libya's civil war with guided missile strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's air defense facilities?

Supporters say the president's decision was justified by the Arab League's call for action on humanitarian grounds and the U.N. Security Council's favorable response. Opponents argue that humanitarian crises alone do not justify the use of American forces in combat and that the president may have exceeded his authority to order the attacks.

Both supporters and critics say the administration has given conflicting messages about the goals of its policy on Libya. Early on, Obama declared that it was time for Gaddafi to leave office and last week said this is the goal of U.S. policy. But he rejected the use of ground forces and promised to turn over leadership of operations to NATO "within days, not weeks."

The Washington Post referred to "the muddle of U.S. policy in Libya" in an editorial titled "Confused in Libya." (March 23). Polls show that the U.S. public is evenly divided on whether the U.S. should have attacked Libya.

The crucial issue for Obama is what happens if Gaddafi's brutal regime does not collapse from continuing air strikes, or an internal revolt by his troops. Will pressure then build in Washington to go further to oust the dictator, for example, to send trainers and logistics specialists to help the rebels retake the cities they lost? Such mission creep occurred in Vietnam in the 1960s, and in Iraq in the early 2000s. Both led to a major war. What issues in the Libyan crisis should now be considered? Here are four suggestions.

- The Obama administration seems obsessed with concern that if Gaddafi carries out his brutal campaign against Libyans who joined the uprising, the United States will be blamed at home and abroad for allowing a humanitarian disaster to occur.

Susan Rice, Obama's ambassador to the United Nations and a strong advocate of military action, was Bill Clinton's assistant secretary of State for African affairs during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Clinton apologized later for not using the military to stop the carnage.

- The NATO countries are divided on whether Libya is important enough to warrant military action to support the rebels, who have little prospect of ousting Gaddafi without NATO assistance. The French, British and other governments favor military support for the rebels, but Germany, Turkey, and others don't want to be involved.

Although everyone prefers that the United States "take the lead," President Obama prefers only a "supporting role." Where does this leave the NATO alliance?

- Arab countries, which should have a major stake in ousting the hated Gaddafi regime, are reticent about being involved. While the Arab League supports protecting Libya's civilian population, it doesn't favor military force to help the rebels take over its government. Only a few Arab states offer military support for operations in Libya. Without firm Arab backing, the kind that George H.W. Bush was able to muster in 1991 during the Gulf War, Barack Obama is on tenuous grounds in providing U.S. support to a European-led military operation against any Arab country.

- Congressional calls for debate on U.S. bombing in Libya suggests that Americans are conflicted about the wisdom of joining this operation. It raises again a key question: should any president have authority to commit U.S. military forces to combat abroad without getting approval from Congress?

The congressional War Powers Resolution in 1973 attempted to restrict presidential authority, but it permits him to deploy the forces for up to 60 days without Congress' approval. Should that question be reopened?

The military operation in Libya opens once more a debate that seems to consume Washington whenever the president decides that force should be used to resolve a political crisis abroad. What national interests are served, and what price should the country be willing to pay to pursue them just anywhere in the world?

Is America rich enough and powerful enough to take on new military responsibilities, in view of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq? Probably not.

We may look back on March 2011 as the time when most American concluded that this country can no longer be the world's policeman, if that implies intervening in humanitarian outrages caused by local tyrants. We may have conscience problems around this, but the price America is obliged to pay in stopping these man-made calamities is probably beyond our capacity.

File last modified on Monday, 28-MAR-2011 10:05 PM EST

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