March 28, 2011

Libya, the Obama Administration, and Communication

From NPR:

President Obama addresses the nation on U.S. military operations in Libya Monday night.


operation started nine days ago. Since then, Obama has faced criticism
from Republicans — and some Democrats — for not having stated firm
goals, and for not getting congressional approval first.


The speech from the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., will be his first major attempt to explain his thinking.

Sec. Gates said yesterday, correctly, that Libya is not in the vital interests of the United States. He then, added, also correctly, that the United States has (presumably non-vital) interests in Libya and that Libya is part of a greater region in which the United States does, in fact, have vital interests. But the reason Sec. Clinton jumped into the conversation and immediately "clarified" the remarks of Sec. Gates is because she knew he had just committed a Kinsey gaffe*, which is to say he had spoken the truth when, ahem, something else would have perhaps been a better political option.

Vital interests are those interests for which you are willing to bleed. And so if we have no vital interests in Libya, why are F-15 pilots punching out and having to be rescued by Marines? As Steve Biddle argued in an op-ed on Saturday, we have gone to war in Libya not to protect any vital interests but because events in Libya "offend U.S. values [and] threaten peripheral interests."


When interests are unclear or peripheral, communicating one's actions is more important than than when interests are clear or vital. The administration has a communications problem on our military intervention in Libya, but it is a communications problem the administration has only half diagnosed.

On the one hand, the administration is rather understandably struggling to explain to the American people why we went to war over something that did not happen. The administration would have gotten plenty of blame had there in fact been a massacre in Benghazi -- a non-event which is, like all non-events, impossible to prove would have happened -- but will not get similar credit for averting disaster. This is unfair, but this is the nature of crisis prevention -- it's more important than crisis response but gets none of the credit because the public cannot see the alternate universe in which you did not act to head off a crisis. Trying to communicate why something terribly dangerous and expensive was necessary when nothing happened is always difficult, and the administration has my honest sympathy in this regard.

On the other hand, the administration has communicated poorly during this crisis, and though I suspect that Obama's aides would agree with that statement, I do not in fact mean that they have not be "out front" with "the administration's message" in the media. Let me explain what I do mean.

I have played competitive team sports all my life, and though I have never been the greatest athlete, I, like Camus**, have learned most of what I have learned in life on the playing field. 

One of the things I have learned is the importance of communication. On the playing field, no matter what the sport, you have to be in constant communication with your teammates. And you communicate so that you and your teammates create a shared understanding of your environment, what you want to do in that environment, and how you will collectively respond to adversity in that environment.

Sometimes, as I always tell my teammates, the primary reason I am talking on the field is not so they understand where I am and what I am doing but so I understand the environment and what I am doing. By talking through things to ourselves, we force ourselves to systematically consider our situation and also allow others to interject and tell us where we are wrong or how we need to adjust to something we either cannot see or did not consider.

When the administration went to war in Libya, it did so without talking through the crisis of Libya, its possible responses to the crisis, and the consequences for action or inaction. As a result, nine days into the intervention, we are at war without a clear policy, clearly defined goals, or stated assumptions. Instead, we are at war with a laundry list of activities -- things we are doing, but things untethered to a broader framework.

Although some of the administration's most vociferous detractors have claimed the president "dithered" on Libya, the reality is that the administration deliberated and then acted on Libya in too hasty and too closed a manner. The debate on whether or not we should intervene in Libya was a debate carried out in the highest echelons of the administration but without much outside consultation or opportunity for others to question the validity of the administration's assumptions. And though humanitarian/liberal interventionists and neo-conservatives were, perhaps correctly, warning of dire consequences of immediate inaction, the administration did not go to war following a careful discussion of interests, strategic goals and assumptions about the environment and our capabilities.

The result of all this haste is the situation in which the president finds himself today. However you feel about the president's decision to send more U.S. resources in Afghanistan, when the president did so, those decisions -- in both March and December of 2009 -- followed both deliberate strategic reviews as well as public addresses in which the president explained to the American people why his administration was doing what it was doing. The fact that the president did none of this prior to our military intervention in Libya has resulted in a public confused and frustrated: confused because it is unclear about what we are doing in Libya and frustrated because it knows what we are doing carries with it tremendous opportunity costs in the current financial environment.

*One of Andrew Sullivan's readers spotted one of my more hilarious typos. That's what I get for forgetting an L!

**Camus, once a promising goalkeeper in Algeria, once famously said that "all that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football."