The Obama War

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 29, 2011


The decision to take military action against the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi will go down in history as one of the most important decisions made by President Obama in his first term in office. In fact, it might potentially determine whether he gets re-elected for a second term.


There is never a good time to start a war, but there are clearly worse occasions. The slow economic recovery in the United States, the immense fiscal deficit inherited by this administration and the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, make this was a particularly inconvenient moment for a military intervention. Given that it can also potentially evolve into a lasting and costly war in a particularly volatile region, the timing could have not been worse.


President Obama understood those complications and consequently hesitated into making the decision to enforce the no fly zone over Libya. He delayed military action until the United Nations Security Council authorized it. Moreover, he made sure that the U.S. did not act alone. The White House secured the cooperation of its NATO partners, thus creating a real and powerful coalition. Obama wanted to make very clear the difference between the way former President Bush initiated military intervention and the way such action is undertaken now that Obama is the President.


Military interventions always require both an exit strategy and clear criteria to evaluate success. So far, the Obama administration has refrained from sending troops into Libya and thus needs no exit plan yet. However, the administration has failed to establish a clear long term objective for the mission. It is not clear if Washington wants Gaddafi out, if it is prepared to live with a portioned Libya, or if it would accept a negotiated cease fire with Gaddafi retaining control of the entire country.


The intervention was communicated to the public without preparation.  Prior developments in Tunisia and Egypt generated a strong support for the pro-democracy movement in the region. Even those who criticized Obama for his initial handling of the uprising in the Arab world claimed to favor the movement but expressed concern over the possibility of Muslim extremists taking over. Yet, critics of the Obama administration proposed no viable alternative plan. Republicans who supported military intervention in Iraq in the name of promoting democracy found it complicated to oppose similar interventions elsewhere. True, a few critics made the point that Gaddafi is no imminent threat to the United States.  But that argument runs against the public who favored the rebels from day one. Besides, the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear emergency in Japan diverted public attention away from the Arab world. Obama himself was in Latin America on a presidential visit when the bombing started. As a result, the U.S. engaged in new military action when the public was inattentive.


For a President who campaigned against wars of choice, as he defined the Iraq War, ordering military action against Gaddafi was not easy. As a candidate, Obama justified the war in Afghanistan, calling it a necessary war.  He now needs to convince Americans that the enforcement of the no fly zone over Libya is also necessary. It will not be sufficient to justify military action on humanitarian reasons.


Obama will find it difficult to persuade Americans that the military intervention is justified. As the administration finds itself battling with Republicans in Congress over budget costs, American are deeply concerned over the negative effect on the fiscal deficit on the rest of the economy and the future of the country. Americans might accept humanitarian intervention arguments and agree on promoting democracy, but they do not want the costs to be added to their fiscal debt. Americans simply believe that they are no longer in a position to pay for a war however justified it might be.


That is the big challenge ahead for the President. Obama needs to convince the public that the war will not add several billion dollars to the mounting fiscal debt. Because Americans know that wars are costly, that will be a tough sell.


Republicans do not have it easy for them either. The inexperience on foreign affairs for many presidential hopefuls has dissuaded them from entering a race that was already getting a late start.  True, some Republican hopefuls might want to wait for Obama to take all the heat from the decision to engage in military action, but the longer they delay entering the race, the more difficult it will be for them to mount the kind of national organization needed to conduct a successful campaign.


President Obama finds itself in a complicated position. With domestic problems mounting and military efforts abroad stretching American resources too thin, this was a particularly bad moment to start military action. Obama needs to convince Americans that he had no other choice and, more importantly, that he can bring this military intervention to a successful end. If he fails, he will be vulnerable as he seeks re-election in November of 2012.