Unfortunately I missed Obama's speech last night. Before his address had been announced I had won tickets to the New Yorker's Big Story series that was looking at "Uprisings" in the Middle East and North Africa. The event featured New Yorker editor David Remnick as the moderator, Steve Coll and Wendell Steavenson from the New Yorker, Princeton professor Amaney Jamal, and Egyptian activist Marwa Sharafeldin.
The conversation focused heavily on Egypt and its current transitional period. Asked what she wants from the US in Egypt, if anything, Sharafeldin replied: "For the sake of the US and for the sake of the Middle East, the best route now is for the US to stay away." When given a follow up by Remnick, wondering if that meant not giving aid as well, she replied, "I would say aid too, absolutely!"
Briefly touching on Libya, the group was fairly mixed about intervention with Coll backing up the intervention due to the lives it likely saved, given what he viewed as evidence of a means and intent to attack Benghazi, and Steavenson concurring while also bringing up the specter of Kosovo and her view that, "it's not often when strategic, humanitarian and moral interests coincide." Jamal took a different approach, acknowledging the immediate humanitarian value of intervention, but questioning the approach and game plan for a post-Gaddafi Libya. Sherafeldin wanted to see a prevention of violence, but one attached to a plan for what comes next and that did not see the US in a major role.
Wanting intervention, but also wanting to choose who will intervene is, at least in Libya’s case, asking to have things both ways or as Remnick put it, “circling a square.” If intervention was going to occur, the US was going to be involved—if for no other reason than the “unique” capabilities we have as a military power with a defense budget 10x that of either France or Great Britain. But, if we can assume that Sherafeldin is voicing a popular Arab sentiment (didn’t the Arab League question the mandate of 1973 as anything other than a strict NFZ?) and not merely just her own, her concerns also speak to the very dilemma of this operation for the United States and our allies. Having now gotten a chance to read Obama’s statements on Libya, I wonder if he truly grasps the situation he’s in.
The difficult transition that Egypt is having is going to pale in comparison to what will occur in Libya. That Obama can claim, “the United States of America has done what we said we would do” while also insisting that although “the United States will do our part to help, it will be a task for the international community, and – more importantly – a task for the Libyan people themselves” falls into the same category of wanting intervention but also wanting to choose how that intervention will occur and who will intervene. How then do you intervene because you’re the only one who can and then declare that someone else will rebuild? International coalitions are ideal, and Obama clearly places great value in them, but if the US was needed as a military force what’s to say that they won’t also be needed as a rebuilding one? Especially since there is no guarantee or commitment, at least not that I’ve seen, from other countries to step in to that void. While it might be realistic in Egypt for the US to back away as Sharafeldin wishes, it seems impossible in Libya.
What little talk in Obama’s speech there was about post-war Libya, let alone post-Gaddafi, glossed over the essential questions of who will be rebuilding and how they will do it? Obama, stating that the US “will safeguard the more than $33 billion that was frozen from the Gaddafi regime so that it is available to rebuild Libya…[since] it belongs to the Libyan people, and we will make sure they receive it” skips a pretty crucial step—the one where a decision is made as to who actually gets the assets. That the US controls this significant reserve is merely a reflection of just how tied in to Libya’s future we will continue to be.
This speech should not have been about justifying military action; it should have been about explaining what happens after that action occurs. While he made a case, not necessarily one I agree with, for the necessity of American involvement, based around our ideals and even exceptionalism, he failed to make the case for our support of Libya’s future. What then, I ask again, about the day after tomorrow?