On Libya, Obama should stay quiet

I don’t know why, exactly, Barack Obama was so hesitant to intervene in Libya or why he has been reluctant even to say much about Libya in public. Maybe, as his critics say, it’s because he’s indecisive, or instinctively reluctant to deploy American military power. Maybe it’s because he thinks two wars are enough, and at a time of massive budget cutbacks we can’t afford a third, optional engagement. But it doesn’t matter: As French planes and American missiles began to bombard Libya on Saturday, his reluctance and his silence suddenly became his most important tactical assets.

If you don’t believe me, imagine the opposite scenario. Imagine that President Obama had spent the past few weeks denouncing Moammar Gaddafi, using the soaring rhetoric he has deployed in the past. Imagine that he had compared Gaddafi to Hitler — which is certainly possible, given that past American statesmen compared Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic to Hitler — or that he had spoken darkly of the menace the Libyan regime presents to the free world. Imagine that he had evoked the language of the U.S. Constitution and called for nothing short of democracy for Libya, too.

Had he done all of that, there would certainly be fewer European members of the “coalition of the willing” that has formed, tentatively, to prevent Gaddafi from entering Benghazi: I can’t see the French or the Spanish falling in behind an aggressive-sounding American campaign. There would probably be no Arab coalition members either: In fact, almost as soon as American planes appeared in the skies over North Africa (and pictures of the consequent damage began to appear on al-Jazeera), the Arab League announced it might withdraw its endorsement of the no-fly zone. Mystifyingly, its secretary general seemed shocked that bombing campaigns lead to civilian casualties.

Enthusiasm and soaring rhetoric would also now lock the United States and its allies into an implied set of promises. If we’d compared Gaddafi to Hitler we’d have to eliminate him. If democracy were the only solution in Libya, we’d have to stay in Libya until it was democratic. If Obama had been talking about nothing else for the past three weeks, his entire presidency would be on the line. In those circumstances, the Arab League’s withdrawal of support could be interpreted only as a personal affront to Obama.

Because the bombardment of Libya has begun and the no-fly zone is in place, there is no point now in arguing the case for or against intervention. We have intervened, and, for better or for worse, we will now be partly responsible for the outcome — and one of the ways in which we can promote a better outcome is to make sure we keep expectations low.

In fact, we may be about to encounter a situation that a senior U.S. military officer recently described as the “what then?” problem. If we are lucky, Gaddafi’s forces will crumble after a few days of air bombardment, just as the Taliban once did. But if that doesn’t happen — what then? We have promised not to send ground troops. But if air power is insufficient to stop Gaddafi — what then? We are involved in Libya to “protect civilians,” something that is going to be very difficult to do if, say, Gaddafi starts slaughtering people in those parts of the country he already occupies. What then?

Should the worst-case scenario unfold, the American president must not offer false promises or make commitments he cannot possibly hope to fulfill. Some have criticized him for embarking on his planned trip to South America this week, but they’re wrong to do so. Whether accidental or planned, cynical or cowardly, Obama should maintain his silence, continue his trip, keep expectations low and offer no encouragement to anyone who expects us to go in, gung-ho for democracy, and win the war.

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