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Judging Obama’s Libya speech: 4 key questions

President Obama’s speech tonight on Libya is like the intervention itself: tardy but perhaps not too late to achieve its purpose. While administration officials have spoken volumes, the president has been largely missing from the action. The president’s absence may have contributed to the confusion that has characterized the Libya policy. The speech, therefore, will ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama's speech tonight on Libya is like the intervention itself: tardy but perhaps not too late to achieve its purpose. While administration officials have spoken volumes, the president has been largely missing from the action. The president's absence may have contributed to the confusion that has characterized the Libya policy. The speech, therefore, will be a bit more important than the run-of-the-mill Big Speech every president must make when he launches a military conflict.

Here are Four Key Questions to ask yourself when the president has closed with "... and God bless the United States of America.":

1. Did President Obama take responsibility for the outcomes or did he only commit to the inputs? Many observers, myself included, have worried that the president has focused too much on inputs and not enough on outcomes. I don't expect him to comment directly on the unnamed senior administration official who said, "In some ways, how it turns out is not on our shoulders." But make no mistake: this speech is very much the administration's response to the very concerns that comments like that have exacerbated. Perhaps the most important thing President Obama will say (or not say) is whether the U.S. mission merely involves conducting airstrikes (inputs) or whether the mission has more strategic objectives. If the latter, then it is very much on our shoulders how it turns out.

President Obama’s speech tonight on Libya is like the intervention itself: tardy but perhaps not too late to achieve its purpose. While administration officials have spoken volumes, the president has been largely missing from the action. The president’s absence may have contributed to the confusion that has characterized the Libya policy. The speech, therefore, will be a bit more important than the run-of-the-mill Big Speech every president must make when he launches a military conflict.

Here are Four Key Questions to ask yourself when the president has closed with "… and God bless the United States of America.":

1. Did President Obama take responsibility for the outcomes or did he only commit to the inputs? Many observers, myself included, have worried that the president has focused too much on inputs and not enough on outcomes. I don’t expect him to comment directly on the unnamed senior administration official who said, "In some ways, how it turns out is not on our shoulders." But make no mistake: this speech is very much the administration’s response to the very concerns that comments like that have exacerbated. Perhaps the most important thing President Obama will say (or not say) is whether the U.S. mission merely involves conducting airstrikes (inputs) or whether the mission has more strategic objectives. If the latter, then it is very much on our shoulders how it turns out.

2. Has the administration done any serious thinking beyond the best-case scenario? So far, the administration has only sketched out a vision of what our role is under the best-case scenario. What is our commitment and obligation in scenarios where things do not live up to the rosy expectations? Given the many partisan (and many justified) critiques levied against the Phase IV planning in the Iraq War which was similarly based on best-case assumptions, the question is all the more on point now. What did Obama say to reassure us that the administration’s public spin is not indicative of the quality of the planning involved in this military operation?

3. Did the president speak candidly about the conflict and the rocky road the coalition has traveled thus far? No administration likes to dwell publicly on its own missteps and every president seeks to exaggerate the quality of his successes. Thus, the president can perhaps be forgiven the occasional rhetorical flourish, such as this one in Saturday’s radio address: "So make no mistake, because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided " Well, yes, if one ignores the weeks during which the administration spoke out against military involvement and frustrated European allies who were pushing for a more forceful response, then one could say "we acted quickly." Perhaps one could say that the administration did a quick U-turn within a week’s time. But a more honest and candid account of the Libya saga would acknowledge that the administration struggled to find its way. Such candor could also extend to the way the administration talks about how multilateral the mission is. Our allies are indeed making important contributions, but as FP‘s Josh Rogin documents here, so far this is a smaller "coalition of the willing" than any major military operation since the end of the Cold War. The president can rightly tout the Arab League vote and Qatar’s token air contribution, but in doing so he should also signal that he is aware that Arab League members have decried the way the United States has interpreted the mission. I do not expect the president to engage in Maoist self-criticism, but the Bush Administration learned a painful lesson that it is better to under-claim than over-claim. So far, the media have largely given the Obama administration a free pass on over-claiming but if events on the ground unravel, the media indulgence could end abruptly. Rather than recycle the radio address language, President Obama would be better served delivering new text that breathes the fresh air of candor into the public discussion.

4. Where is his gut? When it comes to authorizing kinetic operations, Obama has been rather forceful — surprisingly so for a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He has authorized many more drone strikes on Pakistani and Yemeni territory than Bush ever did. He rejected his own campaign rhetoric and authorized the continuation of the Bush plan in Iraq. His two surges in Afghanistan were comparable to Bush’s Iraq surge in absolute numbers and considerably greater in proportional terms. If war were only about kinetic action, he would be one of the most martial of presidents since the Vietnam War. But, of course, war is much more than simply ordering men and women into battle. It is also about leading a country in the conflict and demonstrating resolve in the face of adversity. It is on these dimensions that Obama has been among the least-martial of presidents since the Vietnam War. Obama’s defenders have suggested that it is unfair to assess him on wars he merely inherited (the GWOT, Afghanistan, and Iraq). Very well. This is a war that he started. Let us listen to what the speech tells us about his commitment to this enterprise. Did the president demonstrate that he will do more to mobilize public and congressional support for the Libya mission than he has done to mobilize support for the Afghan and Iraq missions?

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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