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What Obama should say about Libya

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • David Frum: European nations close to Libya, so they fear chaos there could spread
  • Frum: Mission is humanitarian, in saving Libyans; diplomatic, in supporting NATO
  • We need a stable Libya that honors oil commitments and rejects terrorism, he writes
  • Frum: Obama must vow short-term stay, no ground troops, focus on prior commitments

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

(CNN) -- President Obama's communications efforts on Libya have received generally bad reviews.

Sometimes it has seemed the president has been so concerned to avoid offending Middle Eastern opinion that he has disregarded American opinion. Since it is Americans who pay his salary, that seems an unwise omission.

Here follows a draft suggestion of what the president should say when he does at last address the nation on Libya on Monday.

My fellow Americans:

Many of you have complained in recent days of a lack of clarity in our Libya mission.

You say you don't know why we are fighting -- what we are trying to accomplish -- and even whether we are "at war" at all.

I'll admit: I've given you some grounds for complaint. It probably was not a brilliant idea for our Pentagon spokespeople to describe this fight as a "time-limited, scope-limited military action."

So let me today restore some clarity.

I'll begin by asking you to take a look at a map. From Libya to Italy by water is a little farther than from Washington to New York. From Libya to France, about as far as from Washington to St. Louis.

It's farther from Libya to Britain but not beyond reach. In 1984, Libyan gunmen murdered a British policewoman on the streets of London. And in 1988, terrorists working for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi blew up a plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, the worst act of mass murder in British history. Most of those aboard were Americans.

So when the Libyan people rebelled against Gadhafi in mid-February, our European allies were naturally very concerned.

And when Gadhafi hit back hard, bombing and strafing his own people from the air, our allies were horrified.

They saw the risk of Libya breaking apart into a Somalia on the Mediterranean. Refugees. Terrorist enclaves. All a short boat ride away.

Our allies worried too that if Gadhafi prevailed, he would return to the terrorism he committed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, including blowing up a France-bound airliner in 1989.

Our allies pressed us to join with them to act against the tyrant and restore order on the south shore of the Mediterranean.

I have agreed, and for three reasons:

The first reason is humanitarian. People were being killed in very large numbers. By striking from the air against Gadhafi's ground forces, we have saved lives.

The second reason is diplomatic. Just as we expect our European allies to support us when our security is imperiled, so we must support them. Some of our European allies have failed in this duty in the recent past. We do not play tit-for-tat. Instead, we are reconfirming the importance of NATO by providing indispensable American air support for a European-led mission. We are sending an American message to our European allies: Vous nous devez. You owe us.

The third reason is strategic. We want a peaceful, stable Mediterranean. We want an orderly outcome in Libya. Some people complain that I have not specified a goal. Frankly, that's because I do not have one goal. There are a lot of outcomes that would satisfy us in Libya, so long as they met a few basic conditions:

• a stable government that does not need to deploy violence against its people.

• a government that honors its international commitments and obligations, including its energy commitments and obligations.

• a government that does not support international terrorism.

As I mentioned at the start, I am sorry about all those ridiculous euphemisms you heard from our Pentagon spokespeople. Fighting does not get any less messy just because somebody invents a less messy phrase. I was just trying to convey these ideas:

• We are not embarked on a grand mission for democracy in North Africa. We are deploying military force in association with our allies in order to achieve clear but limited goals. The hardest work -- including the work of establishing a responsible post-Gadhafi government -- will be shared with our European allies.

• The fighting won't last long, won't require American ground troops and won't distract us from other international commitments or the supreme focus on economic recovery at home.

Thank you, and may God bless our brave fighting men and women.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.