The president's speech on Libya this week raised more questions than it answered. And with fighting there escalating, as Gadhafi's troops battle poorly trained and armed rebels driving them back from strategic territory they had gained, it seems likely that circumstances will force a more expansive role than President Obama outlined.
We are already under pressure from our allies to provide arms to the rebels, directly or indirectly. But we are not positioned to make an informed decision unless we have a better understanding of what is happening on the ground. In his speech, the president stated U.S. goals as narrowly as possible — to protect civilian populations from slaughter at the hands of Gadhafi's forces. He has demurred on the larger issue of whether it is the goal of the military operation to remove Gadhafi from power, though clearly, any outcome short of Gadhafi's departure would harm U.S. interests. But the problem in Libya, as it was in Iraq, is that we have too little idea what will happen after we achieve our declared military aims.
The administration seems to have been taken totally by surprise, first by popular uprisings in Tunisia, then Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Syria. But the fault is not Obama's alone. Despite billions of dollars invested each year in intelligence-gathering by a myriad of government agencies, we continue to miss what's happening in places vital to our national interests. It's a problem that dates back for decades.
Our intelligence agencies gave us little advance warning that the Soviet Union was on the point of collapse in the 1980s and that the Berlin Wall would fall in 1989, or to predict that the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe would disintegrate and the Soviet Union would dissolve in 1991. Ten years later, our intelligence agencies failed to uncover a careful and well-planned al-Qaida operation in the United States that resulted in the most devastating attack on American soil in the nation's history. Two years after that, we went into Iraq confident that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that, when we deposed him, we would be embraced as liberators.
These are not minor intelligence failures. Despite a massive intelligence reorganization and the claim that we have better coordination and information-sharing among agencies in the aftermath of 9/11, we still keep coming up short on basic facts our leaders need in order to make the right policy choices.
News reports claim that CIA operatives are now on the ground in Libya gathering information about the rebel forces: Who are they? What are their goals? What role are Islamist terrorists — especially those who have fought against us in Afghanistan and Iraq — playing in this rebellion? Will a post-Gadhafi Libya be a secular or an Islamist state?
Some of these questions apply not just to Libya but more importantly to Egypt. Libya and Tunisia are far less significant to U.S. interests than Egypt is. But we have no idea what will happen in Egypt once the military relinquishes control. Opinion is, at best, divided on what role the Muslim Brotherhood will play in upcoming Egyptian elections. And the administration can't even seem to make up its mind about whether the Muslim Brotherhood is a secular organization with a terrorist past or an increasingly Islamist outfit.
You can bet that even if U.S. intelligence agencies don't know what's happening on the ground in Egypt, Israel certainly does. The fate of Egypt poses a direct threat to the existence of Israel. But Obama has so soured relations with America's one true ally in the Middle East that it cannot help but affect cooperation on intelligence-sharing. This is the time when we most need Israel's insights, but is the Obama administration too worried about how such cooperation would be perceived to even ask for Israel's help? And how willing would the Israelis be to share such information given the administration's lukewarm support of Israel and its inability to control leaks?
The president cannot afford to fly by the seat of his pants. He needs answers — and so do the American people.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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