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Obama’s Libya speech: satisfactory, but not satisfying

Obama’s Libya speech: satisfactory, but not satisfying

President Obama gave his first, but hopefully not the last, major address on events in Libya (with a gesture or two to the broader Middle East). The text was solid, not soaring, which befitted the occasion. The delivery was fine, even passionate at points. The speech was serviceable in laying out Obama’s rationale and why he is convinced he picked the absolute goldilocks position between various "false choice" (his words) extremes that he rejected.

Asking myself the questions I posed, I come away with mixed answers:

1. The president talked plainly and persuasively about the inputs and why he ordered them. But he avoided talking about outcomes. He said the administration has "fulfilled the pledge" it made to the American people. And he reiterated the point "So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: the United States of America has done what we said we would do." (Note to research assistants: who in the world doubted the U.S. capacity? I heard many doubts about will, but I can’t imagine there is anyone who has even the faintest familiarity with American military power who doubted our capacity to do what we have done, namely establish air supremacy over Libya and conduct precision strikes against vehicles.) But these are all the inputs. He is right to note that we deserve credit for delivering on the inputs, but strategy is about accomplishing outcomes.  No one expects the outcomes to be achieved already, but I did expect more discussion about what outcomes the military must achieve for him to declare mission accomplished.

2. Alas, the president only talked about optimistic scenarios. The obligatory gestures about a "difficult task"  — "Libya will remain dangerous…"; "Forty years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions" — barely scratched the surface of what could go wrong here. I did not expect the president to run down the "dirty dozen" list of bad things that might happen. That is the work of strategic planning shops. But I did expect more steeling of the American public for possible adverse developments. And I did expect more discussion of why not intervene in other cases that looked, on the surface, like they might match the Libyan case on the atrocity scale.

3. The speech was not particularly candid, though it was clever. Comparing the weeks of confusion in Libya to the months of confusion in the Balkans made a fair point: the Obama administration and our European partners have not dithered as did Clinton and the Europeans back in the day. The president’s timeline, however, gave the impression of a direct march of resolve from the moment the American ex-patriates were safely evacuated until the air sorties began ten days ago.  That is not quite how it happened. Likewise, he quite effectively skewered the two extreme positions of doing nothing or conducting a massive invasion with ground troops à la Iraq. But I was left scratching my head trying to figure out who he is rebutting here: "Contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves." I can’t think of anyone, not even the most fervent America-first-hawk who would endorse that nonsense. What those with experience in the policymaking world do recognize — and what is missing from the president’s speech, quite candidly — is that multilateralism brings with it all sorts of collective action problems that can frustrate mission accomplishment.  

4. I think the President and the speechwriters were quite sensitive to the charge that President Obama adopts too aloof an approach to his commander-in-chief duties. The speech and speechcraft (complete with steely gaze into the camera at just the right moments) was compelling at this point:

As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than keeping this country safe. And no decision weighs on me more than when to deploy our men and women in uniform. I have made it clear that I will never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally when necessary to defend our people, our homeland, our allies, and our core interests."

I detected real passion when he talked about the urgent need to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi — indeed, in some ways, I thought it even more passionate than his 2009 speech announcing the Afghanistan surge. I know the speech was intended to convince me that the president is both realistic and resolved about what he must accomplish. Perhaps it is so.  I certainly hope it is so.

Of course, there are other interesting parts to the speech that warrant further reflection (and perhaps later comment). He wisely avoided saying much about his larger strategy to confront the regional challenges — it is evident they are still feeling their way and better to get the strategy right before giving the big strategy speech. The president made some startling claims about how the Libyan cause was squarely in our interests, recalling the Clinton-era effort to make assertive multilateralism in the pursuit of humanitarian interventions a core pillar of our national security. 

But perhaps the most surprising and, to my ears, the most satisfying moment was this one:  

To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

That is a fairly artful embrace of American exceptionalism and of the doctrine of preemption. I wonder if that will become the Obama doctrine, too.