Obama's Libya speech and mission creep: His rationales for the military campaign will force him to expand it.

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March 29 2011 9:22 AM

Liberating Libya

Obama's rationales for the military campaign will force him to expand it.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the  Libya conflict.

Photos of Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak
Muammar Qaddafi (left) and Hosni Mubarak

President Obama delivered a clear message last night: The U.S. military mission in Libya is strictly limited. In fact, it's virtually over.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Then he outlined a series of rationales, goals, and commitments of which the military campaign is just a part.

This won't work. The military campaign will be judged by the commitments the president has laid out. Either he will have to expand the campaign, or, if he halts it short of his commitments, it will be judged a failure.

Obama's strategy for avoiding a quagmire is well-conceived: The United States used its muscle "on the front end of the operation," which is already done. Our allies will take it from here. All the "risk" of future surprises will be theirs.

That's true if we stick to the plan and stay out. But the objectives Obama declared last night will make it hard to stay out. Here's a list.

1. We must stop the killing. Obama said he merely "authorized military action to stop the killing" and "protect the Libyan people from immediate danger." He assured Americans that "our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives." But saving lives isn't a narrow mission. It's a broad one. The no-fly zone won't stop Qaddafi's ground forces. They continue to kill Libyans every day. Under the terms of our mission, how can we stand by and allow this?

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2. Qaddafi must go. "There is no question that Libya and the world will be better off with Qaddafi out of power," said Obama. "I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means." What happens if non-military means fail to oust Qaddafi? Will the United States refuse entreaties to do more?

3. We will "pressure" the regime. "I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Qaddafi's remaining forces," said Obama. He noted that the military campaign would accompany a "political effort … to pressure Qaddafi." The ultimate objective of all this pressure, Obama explained (as did Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in three interviews on Sunday), is to crack the Libyan regime by making "clear to those around Qaddafi … that history is not on his side." But if the military operation is part of a pressure campaign, then the pressure, to achieve its objective, may well have to be ratcheted up.

4. We will help the rebels. "The task that I assigned our forces, to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger and to establish a No Fly Zone," is "what the Libyan opposition asked us to do," Obama pointed out. Fair enough. So what happens if the opposition asks for a bit more help? Can Obama say that our commitment to do what they've "asked us to do" is (as Slate's John Dickerson  keenly observes) a one-time offer?

5. We must make an example of Qaddafi. "America has an important strategic interest in preventing Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him," said Obama. "The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power."

This was an enormously important statement, probably the most significant thing Obama said last night. It rings true and carries vast implications for how we must respond to the Arab uprisings. We're trying to encourage peaceful transitions, as in Egypt, while discouraging bloody crackdowns, as in Libya. This means we can't allow Qaddafi to come out of the Libyan uprising better off than Hosni Mubarak came out of the Egyptian uprising.

Given this larger framework, it's impossible to believe that the military mission in Libya can be halted short of ousting Qaddafi. Obama's principles and his foreign policy won't allow it.

(Worth reading on Obama's speech: Garance Franke-Ruta calls it "a reminder to a war-weary nation that it is exhausting to be globally exceptional." Howard Kurtz points out, "By waiting until now, the president was able to declare victory … and tout the handoff to NATO." Peter Feaver thinks Obama should have done more "steeling of the American public for possible adverse developments." Matt Lewis notes that Obama "never mentioned the role the U.S. Congress should play in declaring war." Michael Crowley asks about Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule": If we break the Libyan regime, won't we have to clean up the resulting mess, as we did in Iraq?)

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