On a conference call with reporters this afternoon, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes hammered home the White House’s rationale for taking action in Libya. Rhodes, who wrote the president’s address to the nation on the war in Libya, repeatedly emphasized that the driving motivation behind Operation Odyssey Dawn is protecting civilians. Regime change through military means, he stressed, isn’t on the menu. And Rhodes reminded callers that the Obama adminstration isn’t viewing Libya in the same light that the Bush administration saw Iraq.
Rhodes made the case that there are vast differences between military action to secure a civilian population versus military action to oust an autocrat. “When you militarily undertake regime change, you have far greater ownership over what comes next,” he said. “And therefore you’re assuming costs both in terms of achieving regime change, but also in terms of being responsible essentially for replacing the government you’ve removed.” The White House wants to see the end of the Qaddafi regime, but prefers to “apply tools to pressure,” like cutting off him his money and further isolating him internationally.
Rhodes adamantly reiterated President Obama’s message to Americans that the US isn’t looking to commit ground troops to Odyssey Dawn. But what about to post-Dawn peacekeeping? It’s “obviously a different mission than the one we’re engaged in right now,” he said. “But I think it would be premature to hazard any predictions that the US would participate in such a force. It’s certainly not something that we’re planning against at this point.” Rhodes also said that any plans for a post-Qaddafi Libya, if it comes about, have been frustrated by the dictator’s stifling of civil institutions. “One of the challenges in Libya is that Qaddafi himself has prevented the emergence of strong institutions and strong civil society, the type of pillars that would support a transition similar to what Egyptian civil society and national institutions have done next door,” Rhodes said.
He also updated reporters on this week’s London conference, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with leaders of the Libyan opposition and the military coalition. While the goal-of-the-moment is securing the safety of the Libyan people through the military coalition, the conference aims to engage non-NATO Arab countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in a political effort to bring about a government that is more responsive to the Libyan people. It remains unclear, though, who the opposition actually is. Rhodes didn’t offer many specifics. But he did say that the political entity the United States is dealing with “has conducted itself responsibly, in terms of statements it’s made, [the] vision it’s put forward.” The White House, he added, will continue to monitor the still-nascent group as it develops.
The Obama adminstration is working hard to persuade Americans that its intentions in Libya are limited in scope and ambition. But some lingering questions remain. As Clinton gets to know the opposition’s political leaders, what if she doesn’t like what she finds? And, more urgently: how will we know when the dawn has broken, and the military operation has achieved its aims?