"Time and Space" for Libyan Rebels

03/29/2011 04:35 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2011
  • Joe Lauria Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Author

The most important line in President Obama's Libya speech, missed by most analysts, was this: "With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be."

This one line contains the kernel of the Western intervention strategy: neither the U.S. nor NATO is using military means to directly overthrow Gaddafi -- but the rebels are, with U.S. and NATO's help.

Obama left it for his audience to read between the lines. He stated categorically that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake," but not that NATO is clearly giving air cover for the rebels to do it themselves. Why didn't he say it more directly? "If we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter," he said.

But Obama did not explain why it would splinter, leaving his audience to guess, or to willfully ignore this, line. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, in comments to CNN after the speech, completely ignored this, instead choosing to portray Obama, for domestic political reasons no doubt, as a wimp who won't lead America in a mission to depose a tyrant and instead relies on allies to direct a military mission short of regime change.

I argued in these pages before the speech that Obama could have been more explicit about facilitating regime change by the rebels. By leaving out the reasons why the coalition would splinter he gave ammunition both to his domestic critics and to Gaddafi.

The coalition would splinter because of the deep suspicions of Arabs and Africans, expressed through the Arab League and the African Union, of Western military intervention in their region, given the legacy of colonialism and America's more recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

By not taking on this issue head-on to explain why this intervention has nothing to do with the colonial past or the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, neither of which asked for military intervention as Libyans have, Obama allowed Gaddafi's crude anti-imperialist and anti-crusader propaganda to stand.

And it left many Americans still clueless as to what this military mission is really all about, despite some very strong hints: "We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supplies of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power. It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gaddafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But it should be clear to those around Gaddafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on Gaddafi's side. With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be."

But evidently for McCain and Giuliani, and the people who listen to them, hints are not nearly enough. They appear tone deaf to how the region sees US unilateral action. From their point of view it looks like US weakness to act in a coalition with Arab League support. They seem to have little concept of how the region sees America as an agressor, especially after Iraq, and of the need to overcome that perception. Obama clearly understands. Perhaps the time has come to address it directly, to clear the air, both at home abroad.

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