What We Learned From Obama's Libya Speech

The president’s speech Monday night left more questions than it gave answers. He talked a lot about how and why we got involved in Libya, but said almost nothing about how we get out. But two things do seem clear:

We could be doing more of these humanitarian interventions in the future, and we’re going to be involved in Libya for a long time.

The president made the case for involving American forces on humanitarian grounds and because our allies and Libya’s neighbors asked us, and the U.N. endorsed it. He said we couldn’t get involved every time a situation like this happens in the future, but that begs the question of why not if the same conditions exist? Why Libya but not Sudan, or the Ivory Coast, or Syria or even Iran?

The president announced that we would be turning the operations over to NATO in a few days but frankly, this is a distinction without a difference. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander is an American Admiral on the short list to be our next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. NATO may be in charge going forward, but as long as we’re responsible for communications, logistics, intelligence, search and rescue we remain the backbone of the Libyan War. If the contrast drags on, so will our involvement.

So when do we leave? Despite what President Obama said, we still don’t know because there is no defined end state or conditions which must be met for us to go home.

So let's fill in the blanks and hypothesize how this might end. It boils down to two possible scenarios: Qaddafi goes or Qaddafi stays. Either way we’re there for a long time.

The good scenario – that Qaddafi goes – could unfold in a number of ways. He’s assassinated, he's killed as ‘collateral damage’ in a bombing raid, he’s abandoned by the Libyan military, his sons desert him, or he’s forced out by the rebels. This scenario could unfold quickly, or after a prolonged fight involving somebody’s boots on the ground, and building and arming a rebel military.

The bad scenario – that Qaddafi stays – could also happen in a number of ways. Qaddafi flees, goes underground and organizes and insurgency, Iraq style. Or Qaddafi hangs on to western Libya, and the rebels keep the east, and Libya is split in two with the peace enforced by an outside military force. Or there is a possibility that Qaddafi manages to hang on, offering amnesty to the rebels, and starting down the road to reform……until the coalition loses interest, goes home and Qaddafi goes back to his evil ways.

With either the good or the bad scenario, America is likely to be involved in Libya for a good while. In the good scenario we will either be nation-building, albeit in a secure environment. In the bad scenario, we stay involved militarily fighting Qaddafi, building and arming the rebels.

If there is one thing we should have learned in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts: this is a part of the world where they don’t think of peace as an end state; they tend to see it merely as a lull in the fighting.