Special Report

Did Obama Make His Case?

FP's bloggers debate the president's Libya speech.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Why Obama’s Speech Doesn’t Matter
By Stephen M. Walt

The president is tiptoeing through a mine-field of conflicting imperatives, seeking to justify a war that he has launched even though there are no vital strategic interests at stake. And make no mistake: it is a war. When your forces are flying hundreds of sorties, and firing missiles and dropping bombs on another country’s armed forces, it is Orwellian to call it anything else.

It is a war being fought for humanitarian objectives — and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that — but the president’s somewhat tortured parsing of the reasons for his action betrays an awareness that he’s on shaky ground. And notice that almost all of his justifications were anticipatory in nature: we went to war to prevent a potential bloodbath in Benghazi, to prevent evens in Libya from possibly affecting developments elsewhere in the Arab world, and to forestall some future tarnishing of America’s reputation. When you are as strong and secure as the United States really is, everything becomes a “preventive” operation. (Too bad we don’t think that way when it comes to financial matters). Ironically, if the United States faced real threats to its security, it wouldn’t be wasting much time or effort on operations like this one.

Read the full post here.

Why Obama Had to Act in Libya
By Marc Lynch

“We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen.”

This was the blunt, powerful heart of President Obama’s speech last night explaining American intervention in Libya: Had the international community not acted when it did, thousands would have been slaughtered as the world watched. The effects of that decision would have been felt across the Middle East, where America would have been deemed to have abandoned the people struggling for freedom in the Arab world. And it would have quite simply been wrong. I have long been conflicted about the decision to intervene militarily, primarily because of the absence of a clearly defined end-game and the risk of escalation. I doubt that Obama’s speech will convince many of his critics. But I now think that he made the right call.

My conversations with administration officials, including but not limited to the one recounted by the indefatigable Laura Rozen, convinced me that they believed that a failure to act when and how they did would have led to a horrific slaughter in Benghazi and then across Libya. There was no mad rush to war, and certainly no master plan to invade Libya to grab its oil. The administration resisted intervening militarily until they had no choice, preferring at first to use diplomatic means and economic sanctions to signal that Qaddafi’s use of force would not help keep him in power. The military intervention came when those had failed, and when Qaddafi’s forces were closing in on Benghazi and he was declaring his intention to exterminate them like rats.

Read the full post here.

Satisfactory, Not Satisfying
By Peter Feaver

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.

Read the full post, here.

Another Explanation, Please
By Kori Schake

My first reaction to the President Obama’s speech is that he should have given it ten days ago. He didn’t say anything tonight that he couldn’t have said when he ordered combat operations to commence. Waiting for NATO to agree to take on the mission became a good reason for the White House to delay the Commander in Chief explaining his volte face to the nation. But it didn’t actually mask the president not wanting to detract from his prior obligations in Latin America or give the appearance that Americans were running the show (even when Americans were running the show).

That slight of hand feeling pervaded the president’s speech; I still don’t know whether he thinks we have a national interest in Libya. In the past 36 hours, the Secretary of Defense has said we do not have a national interest in the war in Libya, the Secretary of State has said our national interest is our humanitarian interest and helping our allies who really do have national interests. In an effort to break the tie, the president described our national interests in the Libyan war as: preventing a stain on our conscience (from doing nothing), stopping Qaddafi’s advance on Benghazi, preventing refugees destabilizing fragile governments in Egypt and Tunisia, showing other repressive regimes we not allow them to use force, and upholding the United Nations. Which sounds like he’s siding with Secretary Gates’ description but Secretary Clinton’s prescription.

Read the full post, here.

Why Libya? Because we could.
By David Rothkopf

That was the message of Barack Obama’s speech from the National Defense University tonight. His remarks were earnest, well-delivered, and framed in the uplifting rhetoric that usually surrounds America’s international interventions. He spoke of national interests and our revolution-born spirit. He spoke with passion and made lawyerly arguments dismantling the position of both those who said we should not have acted, and those who said we were not going far enough.

But, at its heart, the president’s speech was so committed to avoiding the articulation of a doctrine that it inadvertently created one. At the speech’s core, when the president was trying to answer the question of “why Libya?” he framed it with the words, “in this particular country at this particular moment…” and then he went on to say we faced a grave threat and that we had “a unique opportunity” to stop that violence “without putting U.S. troops on the ground.” He was trying to say why Libya was special and why he made the choice to act. But in effect, what he was saying was we will intervene to advance our eternal American values … when circumstances permit.

For all the talk about our responsibilities to the international community and to humanitarian ideals, the message was: Libya, yes … Congo, no … Darfur, no … Syria, probably not … Yemen, unlikely … Bahrain, heck no. Not to act in Libya would be a “betrayal of who we are.” Not to act in these other places? That was not so clear.

Perhaps a non-doctrine doctrine should not be a surprise given that this is a non-war war in which we are leading without leading and in which our goal is not regime change except to the extent that it is. The administration that came into office decrying pre-emptive military action justified by unsubstantiated threats and inviting uncertain outcomes is now basing its foreign-policy reputation on a pre-emptive military action justified by unsubstantiated threats while inviting uncertain outcomes.

Who is advising the president on this? Lewis Carroll?

Read the full text, here.

Obama on Libya: Watch out, Saudi Arabia
By Thomas E. Ricks

That’s what I thought as I watched President Obama’s speech on Libya. It reminded me that about three years ago, when I read a transcript of an interview Fareed Zakaria did about foreign affairs with Barack Obama, then running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The message I took away from that exchange was that if this guy is elected, he will have little time for dictators, despots and the like.

What we saw in the NDU speech was a logical defense of what the president has ordered the military to do and an exposition of what the limits of the action will be. The cost of inaction threatened to be greater than the cost of action, but now we have done our part. Next role for the U.S. military is best supporting actor, providing electronic jammers, combat search and rescue, logistics and intelligence. That was all necessary, and pretty much as expected.

But I was most struck by the last few minutes of the speech, when Obama sought to put the Libyan intervention in the context of the regional Arab uprising. He firmly embraced the forces of change, saying that history is on their side, not on the side of the oppressors. In doing so he deftly evoked two moments in our own history-first, explicitly, the American Revolution, and second, more slyly, abolitionism, with a reference to “the North Star,” which happened to be the name of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper. If you think that was unintentional, read this.

Rebecca Frankel was formerly the executive editor of Foreign Policy’s print magazine. She is the author of War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love, a New York Times bestselling book about canines in combat. She has appeared as a guest on Conan, BBC World News, and the Diane Rehm Show, among others. In 2016, she adopted Dyngo, a military working dog who is now happily retired from his bomb-sniffing career in the Air Force. @becksfrankel

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