Monday, March 21, 2011

The Policy Discrepancies on Libya

White House and Department of Defense statements from the past 48 hours suggest different levels of interest in ousting Col. Muamar Gaddafi:

March 20

- "We still believe that Qaddafi has lost his legitimacy to lead and must go." - White House Spokesman Tommy Vietor (published March 20).

- "Certainly the goals of this campaign right now are limited, and it isn't, it isn't about seeing him [Gaddafi] go. It's about supporting the United Nations resolution..." - CJCS Adm. Michael Mullen


- "It is US policy that Gaddafi has to go." - President Obama

- "No, I don't worry too much about mission creep. The military mission here is pretty clear -- it is very clear, frankly, and what is expected of us to do: to establish this no-fly zone; to protect civilians; to cause the -- you know, to get the withdrawal of regime ground forces out of Benghazi." - AFRICOM Commander Gen. Carter Ham

- "We expected in a matter of days to be able to turn over the primary responsibility to others." - SECDEF Gates

While White House statements have been unequivocal and direct, DoD statements are much more nuanced, discussing Gaddafi's ouster as one possible outcome and preferring to discuss enforcement of the no-fly zone itself. Given that President Obama was in South America and Secretary Clinton in Paris, the message of nuance was easy for DoD principals to get out over the airwaves Sunday morning here in the States. Admiral Mullen spoke on Meet The Press and Secretary Gates made comments to reporters en route to Russia. Clearly there is no direct contradiction between DoD and the White House. However, different interests are compelling different levels of support for ousting Gaddafi.

The White House's primary interests are to demonstrate credibility internationally, to demonstrate cooperation with the international community, and to bolster support from the American public, about half of whom approve of the President's handling of the situation. Intervention in Libya is also intended to send a clear signal that those Arab leaders who engage in violence will lose support from the US. At the same time, ousting Gaddafi might regain the momentum of Tunisia and Egypt which Gaddafi has disrupted. Finally, a strong moral impetus weighs on the administration after US non-intervention in Rwanda, as others have pointed out.

In contrast, the DoD's primary interest is to limit its engagement in Libya and focus on Iraq and Afghanistan. The DoD expressed anxiety about a no-fly zone earlier this month for the vast amount of resources it would require. Now it is being asked to plan the endstate for a situation in which it has reasonable doubts that an optimal endstate is possible. In response, its public affairs message is focused on the immediate goals of enforcing a no-fly zone and transferring responsibility to the international community.

Notably absent from the debate has been the State Department. Given the general alignment of State and the White House on this issue, there is little need for State to comment (although Secretary Clinton did hint that Gaddafi should leave last Thursday in comments on a Tunisian television program). Certainly it would be in American diplomatic interests to have a democratically elected leader of Libya rather than Gaddafi, with whom the US will never be able to hold a meaningful relationship.

As the air campaign continues, the key challenge for President Obama will be to find the balance between an endstate in Libya which demonstrates US policy consistency, and one which is pragmatically feasible. While some in government may fret about mismatching statements, the cost is a small one for the benefit of having a government where competing interests and consideration of all perspectives informs policy.

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