Shadow Government

Unsatisfying explanation

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 ...

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

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.

President Obama’s checklist of why we acted consisted of: the scale of potential harm, America’s unique ability to stop it, having an international mandate, and it was achievable without ground troops. The Obama Doctrine, as exposited in this speech appears to be "we care enough to prevent you from losing, but we don’t care enough to help you win." That’s fair enough as a risk-minimizing framework for United States foreign policy, but it is wildly at variance with the soaring language the president offered up about our commitment to freedom. And it doesn’t provide very satisfying answers to what next in Libya or whether we will do this again.

I thought the comparisons to the Balkans and Iraq were both unfair. The complicated dissolution of Yugoslavia, the timing of its occurrence, and the lack of precedent made the degree of difficulty higher intervening in the Balkans (and, incidentally, the Clinton Administration delivered Germany). Iraq raises much weightier national interest arguments than the president acknowledged.

The president has taken an awful lot of credit for a pretty stingy commitment to advancing freedom — which is not to say he should make every war of liberation an American war, just that I couldn’t help wondering how it sounded to Iranian dissidents in prison since July of 2009 or voters in Ivory Coast where stolen elections are unresolved or in Darfur, wishing now for years that we cared enough to prevent militia raping and killing, to hear the President of the United States say so proudly "some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different."

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