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Stumbling Into War

[This post was originally published by Democracy Arsenal.]

By Michael A. Cohen

I've been trying very hard to find reasons to be supportive of the current US/UN war in Libya – but it's getting increasingly difficult. And the main reason is that it looks a lot like amateur hour at the White House right now.

First of all, from everything that is being reported (and Josh Rogin as usual is doing yeoman's work on this front) it appears that the White House only made the decision to go to war in the last several daysConsider that for a second; for weeks the US was resisting the use of force in Libya – and then within what appears to be a 96-hour period we went from opposition to intervention to supportive of intervention to escalation far beyond a no-fly zone to actually going to war. And all of this happened without any national debate, any serious consultation with Congress and any strong statement of objectives and purpose by President Obama. 

As Fallows points out in a whipsmart post, the only debate that seemed to happen was the one in the Oval Office . . . to change the President's mind about the use of force. And it should be noted that the person who seemed to have the most impact on shifting the President's view was the woman he beat in the 2008 Democratic primary, in large measure, because of her misguided support for another military intervention that wasn't properly throught thru. 

But the even larger problem is that no one in the White House seems to have any idea what they are ultimately trying to achieve. Here is Hillary Clinton last week, “If you don’t get him out and if you don’t support the opposition and he stays in power, there’s no telling what he will do.”  Apparently, in this Administration Hillary is playing the role of Madeleine Albright – a woman who never saw a war she couldn't moralize about.

But according to Adm. Mike Mullen, "The goals are limited. It's not about seeing him go. It's about supporting the United Nations resolution which talked about eliminating his ability to kill his own people." In fact, Mullen actually suggested that Gaddafi might stay in power despite the assault. 

The obvious problem here is that our current military strategy will not eliminate Gaddafi's ability to kill his own people – it will just make it more difficult for him to kill them via airpower. And, in what is a very positive note, it appears that the coalition effort may have in the near-term stopped a potential massace in Benghazi. But if we are serious about impeding Gaddafi's ability to harm civilians there is far more that needs to be done – and it seems fairly obvious that the United States isn't prepared to do it.

But all this begs the question: what is the end game here? Are we really willing to accept Gaddafi staying in power? Or are we executing the Hillary strategy?

Are we and our UN allies prepared to patrol a no-fly zone ad infinitum if Libya is basically partitioned, de facto, into two states? And what if our are already weakly-held together coalition abandons the job – something that already seems to be happening with the Arab League?

None of these questions have been answered. Indeed I'm not even sure they have been asked. Instead it seems like an impulsive President decided, without a great deal of consulation of even consideration, to launch a miliary strike on Libya to prevent a civilian massacre – and gave scant thought to what comes next. In other words it appears that he decided to shoot first and ask tough questions later.

I hate to say this, but I thought that was the profile of the guy Obama beat in 2008.

Michael A. Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. He is the author of Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America (Walker Books: 2008).

Photo courtesy of flickr user Official U.S. Air Force.

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