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What Obama Should Say Tonight About Libya | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

What Obama Should Say Tonight About Libya

The following is an advance text of President Obama's what President Obama should say in his speech to the nation, to be delivered at 7:30 pm tonight.

My fellow Americans, my predecessor in the White House never admitted that he made any mistakes, but I have come before you tonight to admit that I have erred in intervening in Libya, and I ask your forgiveness.

When I announced that I was planning to intervene, by imposing a no-fly zone and by attacking Muammar Qaddafi’s forces on the ground, my intention was to protect and defend civilians who were under attack. That was, and is, a laudable goal. And perhaps we did prevent many deaths in Benghazi, the Libyan city held by rebels. But the cost is too high, and though it’s too late to undo what’s already been done, I want to speak to you tonight about how to make this right.

I gave in, too soon, to those in my administration who argued that the United States has to enforce what’s called the “responsibility to protect.” That responsibility is a sacred one, indeed. But in this case, there’s simply too much evidence that we overreached.

By mobilizing our military against Libya, we unleashed the dogs of war in a way whose future is simply unpredictable. None of my advisers or our intelligence community can tell me what will happen next, so I’ve decided to end our involvement tonight. It’s one thing to say that we’ll bomb armored columns loyal to Qaddafi in defense of Benghazi, but what next? Do we expand the war? Do we provide air cover for the rebels’ offensive as it moves west toward Tripoli, the Libyan capital? Do we bomb Tripoli, if Qaddafi fails to surrender or flee? Do we arm the rebels? With tanks? Heavy weapons? Do we send advisers? No one has been able to answer these key questions for me.

Worse, in attacking Libya, we’ve killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of Libyan troops. You’ve seen photographs of long, armored columns reduced to burning hulks. We may never know how many people died under the coalition’s aerial bombardment, and I’ve asked for a full accounting. We don’t know whether civilians died, too, as the result of our bombing campaign. We took care to avoid hitting civilians. Undoubtedly, however, some civilians have also perished.

I know that some of you, especially among neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, wanted me to act because you feared a massacre in Benghazi. Perhaps we averted one. But so far, at least, there’s no evidence that Qaddafi’s forces are carrying out anything like genocide or mass killings on the scale of Rwanda or Srebrenica in the 1990s. It’s horrible that many Libyans have died. It pains us all. But they died in a civil war in which, as Secretary of Defense Gates has said, the United States has no vital interest. Our nation simply cannot take on the responsibility of using its military to take sides in civil wars. We can speak out, we can engage in vigorous diplomacy, we can isolate and sanction rulers who abuse their power. But America is not the world’s policeman, and it is not the arbiter of what’s right and wrong around the world. If we wage war in Libya, then why not Bahrain? Yemen? What about the millions who’ve died in Congo and Sudan? What about the Ivory Coast? Already, the New York Times is suggesting that we think about a no-fly zone in Syria.

To enforce our will, I pressured friends and allies to go along, and I intimidated other nations to permit our action. I am sorry, now, for pressuring South Africa and Nigeria, the leaders of Africa, into putting aside their better judgment and voting to support the United States, Britain and France at the UN Security Council. We also worked hard to convince other friends and allies on the UNSC not to vote against us, including Germany, India and Brazil, who abstained. And we made it clear to Russia and China that their relationship with the United States would suffer severely if they blocked the UNSC resolution with a veto. Because of its great power, the United States can often get what it wants at the UN. But that doesn’t make it right.

Similarly, we pressured our NATO allies to go along. Some, such as Germany and Turkey, were opposed. But we used our influence to get them to submerge their objections and to support the NATO role.

Too easily, I used the Arab League’s vote to support action against Libya. That, too, was a mistake. The Arab League action was driven, especially, by Saudi Arabia, an anachronistic and reactionary monarchy which has a long history of animosity toward Qaddafi, going back forty years. Saudi Arabia pushed the Arab League to support a no-fly zone against Libya, over the objections of nations such as Algeria and Syria, even as Saudi Arabia’s army rolled into Bahrain to put down a rebellion there by force. It’s a sad irony that I endorsed Saudi goals in Libya, while chastising the Saudis for their heavy-handed action in Bahrain, and in Ye men, where the Saudis support another authoritarian ruler. By doing so, I put the Arab League in a difficult position, because the bombing and strafing of Libyan army forces—which went far beyond the no-fly zone that the league wanted—makes it appear as if the Arab League is endorsing unlimited military action in an Arab nation.

There’s no question that Qaddafi is a distasteful ruler. Compared to Saddam Hussein, however, he is far less brutal and bloody. I strongly opposed the war in Iraq, even though humanitarians and liberal interventionists applauded my predecessor’s action to invade Iraq and force a regime change. So why is it so important to topple Qaddafi? Is he the only bad ruler in the world?

Some argue that Libya is not Iraq. It’s not. But as in Iraq, a war that was thought to be short and simple became a long, torturous campaign in which many hundreds of thousands of people died and an entire nation was shattered, destroyed. That may not happen in Libya, but we can’t be sure. A prolonged civil war in Libya could lay waste to that nation. In Iraq, we didn’t have the support of the world community and the UN, while in Libya we succeeded in winning a UN vote in favor of the war. But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. As your president, I cannot stand on narrow legalities. The fact remains that in Libya, as in Iraq, we attacked a nation that did not threaten or attack us, that did not pose a danger to the United States.

Worse, I attacked Libya without seeking the approval of Congress. President Bush, in preparing to attack Iraq, sought and won Congressional approval. I did not.

To make amends, I’ve ordered an immediate halt to US involvement, and I have asked our allies to do the same. I’m asking the African Union and the Arab League to convene a joint panel, under the auspices of the UN, to seek an accommodation between Qaddafi and the Libyan rebels. The first goal of that effort should be a mutual agreement on a ceasefire. After that, the two sides can discuss how to resolve the crisis. If Qaddafi, in the end, wishes to step down, we will offer our assistance to him to find a safe and secure place of residence in exile. In any case, the outcome of the civil war in Libya will be solved by the Libyans themselves.

Thank you, and good night.

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