By the time President Obama addressed the country about Libya Monday evening, the mission was nine days old — and he could point to some clear successes. The United States, he said, “has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre and establish a no-fly zone.” In fact, there’s little doubt that the first allied airstrikes stopped an assault on the rebel-held city of Benghazi by the forces of Moammar Gadhafi that could have killed thousands. Mr. Obama was right to act, and he deserves the credit that he claimed.
The problem is that the war in Libya is far from over, even if the administration is handing command off to the NATO alliance. Mr. Obama said “the United States will play a supporting role” from now on, and “the risk and cost of the operation . . . will be reduced significantly.” But he also recognized that unless Mr. Gadhafi is removed from power, “Libya will remain dangerous.” The humanitarian rescue that the president celebrated will be tenuous - and American forces may be needed again.
For now, a change of regime does not look near. While rebel forces have made encouraging advances in recent days, it’s not clear they are capable of a military victory without direct support from NATO. Such backup is not allowed by the U.N. resolution that authorized the intervention, and Mr. Obama reiterated that he would not support it: “Broadening our military mission to include regime change,” he said, “would be a mistake.”
Mr. Obama said he would “actively pursue” Mr. Gadhafi’s downfall “through non-military means.”
The president repeated calls for those around Mr. Gadhafi to turn against him. The administration appears to hope that the regime will crumble from within.
What was missing from Mr. Obama’s address was a strategy that doesn’t rely on good fortune — a sudden coup, an unexpected rebel advance, or an unlikely political deal for Mr. Gadhafi’s departure.