Mon March 28, 2011
Conflict In Libya

U.S. Intervention In Libya: A Noble Use Of Force?

When the bombs started dropping on Libya nine days ago, President Obama was in Brazil on a trade mission. He took time out from talking to business executives to announce that military action had begun.

"Make no mistake," the president said. "Today we are part of a broad coalition. We are answering the calls of a threatened people. And we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world."

On Monday night, the president will expand on that message with a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He'll try to explain why it's in the United States' interest to intervene in Libya — and he'll stress the limits of that involvement.

The president touched on those ideas more than a year ago when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize.

Using Bombs To Keep The Peace

Back in December 2009, President Obama could hardly have imagined the dramatic changes sweeping the Arab world this spring. But even as he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, Obama warned that keeping the peace sometimes requires the force of arms.

"More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region," he said.

Libya is an early test of how the president answers those questions. Obama said part of his calculation was the possibility that violence in Libya could spread to a wider region.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told ABC this weekend that while Libya itself might not be a vital national interest to the U.S., the prospect of turmoil spilling beyond its borders is worrisome.

"You had a potentially significantly destabilizing event taking place in Libya that put at risk potentially the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt," Gates said. "And that was another consideration I think we took into account."

'America Cannot Act Alone'

In his Nobel prize speech, Obama telegraphed a second consideration for when to use force: when there's international cooperation.

"America's commitment to global security will never waver," he said. "But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone."

In Libya, America is not acting alone. In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested on ABC this weekend that the U.S. military might not have acted at all, had it not been for the encouragement of the French, the British and members of the Arab League.

"We are supporting a mission through NATO that was very much initiated by European requests, joined by Arab requests," Clinton said. "I think this is a watershed moment in international decision-making."

President Obama argues that broad coalition adds legitimacy to the fight against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi — and also helps limit the price tag.

"This is precisely how the international community should work," Obama said, "as more nations bear both the responsibility and the cost of enforcing international law."

Despite some squabbling, NATO will take over command of the operation within the president's timetable of days, not weeks.

But there is a cost to running a war by committee. It's likely contributed to some of the confusion over U.S. goals in Libya. President Obama has called for Gadhafi's ouster, but the military mission authorized by the U.N. Security Council extends only so far as protecting civilians.

Holding Tyrants Accountable

Obama insists there are other, nonmilitary ways to put pressure on Gadhafi and those around him, including international sanctions and threats of war crimes prosecution. That's a third point Obama made in his Oslo speech: It's not enough to merely condemn tyrants — you have to be willing to back it up.

"The words of the international community must mean something," he said in 2009. "Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable."

The president repeated that idea 10 days ago, on the eve of the first missile strike, saying if Gadhafi were allowed to carry out his threats, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.

The international community acted to stop Gadhafi. And on Monday night, Obama will use his own words, in an effort to persuade the American people it's worth it. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.