The Libyan Embassy in Washington with the rebels flag on it
As the crisis in Libya continues the US has taken great care to keep all options open. Enthusiasm for another war is not high in the states, and Barack Obama is taking care not too get bogged down in another unpopular war. So far, the president has successfully walked a fine line.
To most Americans, Libya offers all the requirements for their country’s intervention. A tyrant was about to sweep clean the areas of his opponents and brutally punish them en masse, thus giving a humanitarian context for the war. The international community, including the Arab League and the United Nations, decided to put an end to the advances of Muammar Qadhafi’s forces through military means, making the war multilateral. A considerable number of Libyans, perhaps a majority, support foreign intervention against their dictator. They even offer their young men to do the leg work and go after Qadhafi while America and its allies pound him from altitudes of 30,000 feet.
Despite all the right reasons and the inviting Libyan and international contexts, many Americans have expressed weariness over their country’s participation in the multilateral campaign. With two wars that have not yet come to a close in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with a war bill growing by the day, a third front in Libya—despite meeting American requirements for intervention—does not resonate well with many Americans.
Members of Congress have captured the popular mood and voiced criticism against president Obama, not for his justified intervention, but presumably for his failure to notify Congress. “For now,” according to Matthew Waxman, an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Law and Foreign Policy at the Council for Foreign Relations, “the president's actions stand on pretty solid legal ground. If they extend over months, however, that ground will weaken, so the President has great incentive to win congressional support—and quickly.”
So far, the Libya war seems to be going in the rebels’ favor, which means that Obama is covered, both in Congress and in the eyes of most Americans. But should Qadhafi manage to hold his lines at any point and force a stalemate, Obama’s position might become precarious. To avoid such an outcome, Max Boot, also from the Council for Foreign Relations, told reporters: “[W]e already have the airpower in place. All we really need to do is to send some Special Forces teams to work with the rebels, to act as forward air controllers to coordinate their actions with those of the NATO air forces flying overhead. And I think that would be a very potent one-two punch.”
If Obama and the world can force a quick outcome in Libya, with or without US Special Forces, Americans might be willing to give their president the benefit of the doubt. Success in Libya might also restore American confidence in the worthiness of future intervention around the world.
However, if Obama and the coalition fail to hand Qadhafi a quick blow and the war drags on, the coalition might crack and America might be the first to jump off the multilateral boat. After all, the US president has already highlighted the noncommittal nature of his country to the multilateral campaign. “It will be a matter of days,” Obama said, perhaps to keep his exit options on the table.