Sen. McCain Invents A Contradiction In Obama's Libya Speech

March 28, 2011 9:13 pm ET — Alan Pyke

Appearing tonight on CNN to respond to President Obama's speech on our limited intervention in the Libyan civil war, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had one primary complaint. According to McCain, "Gaddafi must have been somewhat comforted" because Obama "made a very puzzling comment, and that was, regime change by force would be a mistake."

MCCAIN: He mentioned a couple of times that Gaddafi must step down, and then he made a very puzzling comment, and that was, regime change by force would be a mistake. Gaddafi must have been somewhat comforted by that. It was then at least to some degree counter to the President's statement that Gaddafi must go. And if we end up in a situation where Gaddafi is able to cling to power, then we could easily see a reenactment of what happened after the first Gulf War. Stalemate, no fly zone, lasted for ten years and didn't bring Saddam Hussein out of power. Look, the reason why we wage wars is to achieve results of a policy we state. The president's policy is, Gaddafi must go.

The nuance of Obama's thinking here may disturb conservatives, but the president's speech was not in fact contradictory on this point. Indeed, Obama explained in three short paragraphs why his stated desire for Gaddafi to step down is consistent with the tight constraints he has placed on American military involvement — constraints he characterized as "what the Libyan opposition asked us to do."

Of course, there is no question that Libya — and the world — will be better off with Gaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.

The task that I assigned our forces — to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a No Fly Zone — carries with it a UN mandate and international support. It is also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do.  If we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.

To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq's future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.

President Obama was not, as McCain claimed, ruling out "regime change by force" in general — he was simply saying that the ground forces who eventually force Gaddafi out of Libya ought to be Libyan, and not American. If anyone is contradicting himself here, it's McCain. In the same segment, the former presidential candidate said that U.S. and NATO air support has shifted momentum back to the rebels, and suggested coalition strikes and rebel pressure could be enough to get Gaddafi out.

"I think there's every chance that if we keep the pressure on that Gaddafi will be thrown under the bus by his relatives or friends or others," McCain said, adding that "by keeping up the sustained pressure and movement, that Gaddafi can be removed."


UPDATE: Sarah Palin echoed Sen. McCain's remarks in her own appearance on Fox News later in the night, saying that "if we're not gonna oust [Gaddafi] via killing or capturing, then there is no acceptable end state." Watch: