Obama should support those fighting for freedom, and conservatives should argue for victory, says FPI Director William Kristol

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It’s not war but a “time-limited, scope-limited military action.” The United States has been in the lead, but will be stepping back, ASAP, in favor of command (supposedly) by a squabbling coalition of the not-so-willing. The objective of the “kinetic military action”—which is going to last days, not weeks, unless it does last weeks—isn’t regime change in Libya. Our broader objective, however, is to topple Muammar Qaddafi. The commander-in-chief, meanwhile, is floating above the fray, hovering over his divided administration and his muddled policy.

And yet we’ll probably succeed.

The Obama administration deserves much of the criticism it’s getting—both for its conduct in Libya, and for its generally hesitant and passive stance toward this historic moment in the greater Middle East. The president may not be as attentive as he should to such criticism from the likes of us—but perhaps he’ll hearken to the counsel of the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier:

[Obama] dreads the imputation of our influence. All his assurances of a new world notwithstanding, he is haunted by the ghost of imperialism. . . . [But] if the men and women in the streets of Tehran and Cairo and Tripoli and Tunis continue to understand their fate with primary reference to imperialism, why do they implore the American president to help them? Clearly the peril of authoritarianism looms larger for them than the peril of imperialism. . . . [A]wakening peoples prefer our assistance to our penance. . . . In that struggle the United States must choose sides. . . . [W]e must have their backs.

The United States really should have the backs of those fighting for freedom. How willing the president is to overcome his prejudices and to reorient his whole attitude toward the Middle East and the world, we don’t know. But we can hope for change.

In the case of Libya, though, we do suspect that the president knows that we—and he—can’t afford to lose. So Obama won’t cut and run. Nor should we underestimate the capabilities of the American military, and Qaddafi’s weakness and vulnerability. And to be fair to the Obama administration, the United States has fought previous wars—and won them—with muddled goals, mixed messages, and less than inspiring leadership. The outcome in Libya could well be satisfactory.

We should of course hope it is, and we should work to see that it is. Meanwhile, here’s a word of counsel to some of our fellow conservatives: Chill.

We’re at war. We need to succeed in that war. By all means, be generous with the constructive criticism. (For example, it seems ridiculous for the United States not to be arming the Libyan opposition.) Note for the historical record the Obama administration’s dithering and double-talk. But don’t carp and cavil in ways that suggest America can’t prevail, or that America shouldn’t prevail. Don’t revel in every administration misstep. Don’t chortle at every misstatement. Don’t exacerbate the administration’s failure to build domestic support for the mission. Put the mission, and the country, first.

Which means, to some extent, that we might consider biting our collective tongues, wishing the president well because he is our president, and helping him get it right rather than pointing with glee to everything he’s doing wrong. Which in turn means that we might want to cool it with the 24/7 criticism. Let’s support our troops and their mission, and give the war a chance—even though it’s a war that’s not being perfectly conducted by an administration that offers plenty of cause for frustration.

You go to war with the president you have. This isn’t the one we conservatives preferred. We have a good chance to remove him in 2012. We should work to do so. But first let’s remove Qaddafi, help get Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen right, and—who knows?—despite our reluctant president, push the administration to have the backs of those fighting for regime change in Syria and Iran.

The modern left expects the United States to lose its wars. Some on the left often seem to be rooting for American defeat. We argued in this space last week that at their best, today’s conservatives—and the Republican party that is their vehicle—constitute the party of freedom. They are also the party of victory. So Republicans should vote for victory in Congress, as conservatives argue for victory in the public square. After all, if we prevail in Libya—and in Afghanistan and Iraq—the victory will be America’s.

- Originally written for The Weekly Standard

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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