We might want to remind ourselves that the discussion that was happening publicly in March 2011 about Libya was not the one President Obama was willing to engage. Michael Lewis wrote about exactly what happened. On March 15th, the President had a meeting with all the "principals" to discuss the situation in Libya.
Before big meetings the president is given a kind of road map, a list of who will be at the meeting and what they might be called on to contribute. The point of this particular meeting was for the people who knew something about Libya to describe what they thought Qaddafi might do, and then for the Pentagon to give the president his military options. “The intelligence was very abstract,” says one witness. “Obama started asking questions about it. ‘What happens to the people in these cities when the cities fall? When you say Qaddafi takes a town, what happens?’” It didn’t take long to get the picture: if they did nothing they’d be looking at a horrific scenario, with tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered. (Qaddafi himself had given a speech on February 22, saying he planned to “cleanse Libya, house by house.”) The Pentagon then presented the president with two options: establish a no-fly zone or do nothing at all. The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. “He instantly went off the road map,” recalls one eyewitness. “He asked, ‘Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?’” After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, “I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room.”It turns out that the people not at the table were asking the same question the President was asking...how do we stop a massacre.
Obama then proceeded to call on every single person for his views, including the most junior people. “What was a little unusual,” Obama admits, “is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made.” The argument he had wanted to hear was the case for a more nuanced intervention—and a detailing of the more subtle costs to American interests of allowing the mass slaughter of Libyan civilians.
The president may not have been surprised that the Pentagon hadn’t sought to answer that question. He was nevertheless visibly annoyed. “I don’t know why we are even having this meeting,” he said, or words to that effect. “You’re telling me a no-fly zone doesn’t solve the problem, but the only option you’re giving me is a no-fly zone.” He gave his generals two hours to come up with another solution for him to consider, then left to attend the next event on his schedule, a ceremonial White House dinner.We know that the content of the meetings the President has been having about Syria the last few days is different. But I expect that he will have demonstrated the same process...identifying the questions that clarify the goal and then demanding options that offer the best chance of reaching that goal. That's the same process that was described when he made the decision to go after bin Laden.
As I've listened to the current debate about cruise missiles/no cruise missiles, I suspect we're once again missing the point. The question we should be asking is "what is the goal in Syria and what are the options for reaching that goal?" That's the discussion I'm sure the President has been having.