Libya: How vital, how long, how costly?

    To pave the way for tonight’s presidential address on Libya, two top Obama teammates navigated the Sunday morning TV shows, presumably intending to allay public concerns about the scope and purpose of the nascent military mission. I doubt they succeeded.Key quote #1, from Defense secretary Robert Gates: “No, I don’t think (Libya) is a vital interest of the United States.”Key quote #2: When Gates was asked whether U.S. military forces would still be embedded in Libya at year’s end, he replied: “I don’t think anybody knows the answer.”Gates, with help from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, did try to contextualize quote #1, by quickly adding, “But we clearly have interests there. And it’s a part of the region, which is a vital interest for the United States.” However, his initial remark about Libya – coupled with his concession, in quote #2, that the U.S. lacks a clear exit strategy – is further evidence that President Obama’s war of choice is not an easy sell.Obama will try to make the sale tonight, pitching for the first time to the home-front TV audience, and undoubtedly he’ll stress that the no-fly zone and western air strikes have prevented a civilian massacre and put Moammar Gadhafi back on his heels; and that NATO is now running the show, not us.But that’s just the tactical stuff. More important are the broader strategic thematics:

    What about Gates’ admission that nobody can clearly foresee the end of U.S. military involvement? Since the mission has already morphed from “protecting civilians” to militarily aiding the rebels in their fight against Gadhafi – in other words, we’ve essentially taken sides in an internal civil war – how far does our commitment extend? (NATO may be in charge, but the United States is still the prime mover within NATO.) Given the very real possibility that Gadhafi and the rebels may wind up stalemated for an indefinite period of time, are we now morally on the hook to remain militarily involved for the unforeseeable duration?Obama needs to address some of those big questions. And here’s another one:In a weekend broadcast, Obama laid out his humanitarian doctrine (which he may reiterate tonight), declaring that “when innocent people are being brutalized” and “when the international community is prepared to come together to save millions of lives, then it’s in our national interest to act.” So does this mean he sees Libya as a template for more interventions? Wouldn’t that expose him to increased pressure from the neoconservatives who want us to intervene virtually everywhere? For instance, neoconservative pal Joe Lieberman agitated on Fox News Sunday for a U.S. intervention in Syria; in his hawkish view, “If Assad does what Gadhafi was doing, which is to threaten to go house to house and kill anybody who’s not on his side, there’s a precedent now that the world community has set in Libya, and it’s the right one.”

    (All kinds of critics got into the game yesterday, including some who are grievously quality-challenged. “I think the goal has to be that Gadhafi leaves. My personal view is that once you’re involved, you have to recognize the prestige of the United States is at stake,” declared Donald Rumsfeld, who in the past decade has arguably done more than anyone else to soil the prestige of the United States.)It would also be helpful if Obama addressed a related issue that has received relatively scant attention thus far: How much is Libya slated to cost us, anyway? Are we not drowning in red ink at the moment, with Congress clashing on the budget week by week, with yet another showdown seemingly imminent?On this point, the smartest remarks yesterday were articulated by Senator Dick Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a veteran pragmatist (as opposed to neoconservative) on foreign policy. Here’s how he put it on Meet the Press: “I don’t believe we should be engaged in a Libyan civil war….In Congress we are debating seemingly every day the deficits, the debt ceiling situation coming up, the huge economic problems we have – but in the back room, we are spending money on a military situation in Libya. Estimates are that about $1 billion has already been spent on an undeclared war in Libya. Some would say only hundreds of millions, and that that will diminish in the days ahead. But who knows how long this goes on? And furthermore, who has really budgeted for Libya at all? I have not really heard the administration come forward saying that we’re going to have to devote these funds, folks. And therefore, something else will have to go or it simply adds to the deficit.”Yeah, whatever happened to the laserlike focus on jobs and deficits? Can we really afford to run a new war tab? Perhaps Obama can enlighten us.——-Meanwhile, in my Sunday newspaper column, I wrote about the war within Obama’s political base, where pro-interventionist liberals are fighting with anti-interventionist liberals, and vice versa. It ain’t pretty.——-Meanwhile, over the weekend, I wrote this freelance article that bids farewell to Geraldine Ferraro, who famously shattered a glass ceiling in 1984 – during her brief, shining moment.

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