Power Centers

Obama Explains Why He's Taking On Libya's Biggest Bully

President Obama leaves after making a statement on Libya, Friday, March 18, 2011. i i

President Obama leaves after making a statement on Libya, Friday, March 18, 2011. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
President Obama leaves after making a statement on Libya, Friday, March 18, 2011.

President Obama leaves after making a statement on Libya, Friday, March 18, 2011.

AP

A week ago, President Obama hosted a White House conference on bullying prevention that kicked off in the East Room. The president had in mind the kind of intimidation that happens in school lunchrooms and such.

On Friday, when he returned to the same ornate room, the president was thinking about a different kind of bullying, the sort that features tanks and field artillery pieces deployed by a dictator against his own people.

Explaining his decision to have the U.S. participate in a UN sanctioned military intervention against Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, Obama said:

Now, here is why this matters to us. Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.

The decision to confront Gadhafi with a coalition of the willing that includes Britain, France as well Arab states, came after days in which the president was accused by some critics of dawdling while Gadhafi tried to roll up the rebels.

Some have asked why the president seemed to change his mind so quickly?

There's some thinking that the president was using the time to make sure the U.S. wouldn't be alone in taking on Gadhafi. During his regular Friday appearance on All Things Considered, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne said Obama was taking a page from President George H.W. Bush's Secretary of State James Baker in building a coalition. Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Baker worked diplomacy channels to line up a large international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait.

Obama also was apparently using the time to do a cost-benefit analysis of U.S. military action.

The Foreign Policy magazine blog, The Cable has a post by Josh Rogin that attempts to explain how Obama made the decision.

An excerpt:

At the start of this week, the consensus around Washington was that military action against Libya was not in the cards. However, in the last several days, the White House completely altered its stance and successfully pushed for the authorization for military intervention against Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. What changed?

The key decision was made by President Barack Obama himself at a Tuesday evening senior-level meeting at the White House, which was described by two administration officials as "extremely contentious." Inside that meeting, officials presented arguments both for and against attacking Libya. Obama ultimately sided with the interventionists. His overall thinking was described to a group of experts who had been called to the White House to discuss the crisis in Libya only days earlier.

"This is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values," a senior administration official said at the meeting, telling the experts this sentence came from Obama himself. The president was referring to the broader change going on in the Middle East and the need to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.