Obama Leaves the Pundits Wanting More

Libya speech did little to clear up the unclear

If the president had hoped last night’s speech would quash claims that the purpose and objective of our intervention in Libya was unclear, he probably shouldn’t unfold a paper or open his laptop this morning. The pundits—left, right, and in between—are pretty damningly unanimous: what little was clear before President Obama took the lectern remains clear; what was unclear is as vague and hazy as ever. Perhaps even hazier.

John Dickerson of Slate perhaps best sums up the near-universal consensus early in his column today:

Obama started with a clear mission statement. He promised to explain “what we have done, what we plan to do, and why this matters to us.” He was very strong on Items 1 and 3 but got fuzzy on Item No. 2.

As the pundits see it, the president was effective in explaining why he felt compelled to enter into what many see as a basic civil war—Qaddafi was promising to kill an extraordinary number of people and the U.S. had the expertise to intervene, at least delaying that bloodshed, with international backing and a coalition of behind it. Where the president failed, say most, was in explaining two things: the ultimate goal of the mission in Libya and why he chose to intervene there and not in other countries where similar unrest is leading to similar violence.

The pundits have a point.

You could almost see the mental knots being tied as the president tried to explain why intervening in Libya made more sense than intervening in other places:

It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

If those same chips fall into place in the next month around action in Yemen—the threat of mass violence, the support of Arab countries, and a plea from the Yemeni people—would intervention there then be justified?

Similarly, the in-the-air endgame—are we after a no-fly-zone or regime change?—was made no clearer.

Of course, there is no question that Libya—and the world—would be better off with Qaddafi 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 U.N. mandate and international support. It’s also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do. If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, 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.

The National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson, who described Obama’s speech as “weird,” offered a pointedly derisive summary of Obama’s argument on why he went in and how he hopes to get out, that rings with harsh truth.

Translation: It now seems good to have removed Saddam, but too costly. It was good to remove Milosevic, but it took too long. So I will remove Qaddafi much more quickly and at far less cost, but I won’t do it by targeting Qaddafi, but by preventing his aircraft from flying and hoping Qaddafi goes away. Qaddafi deserves our special intervention because he is worse than other dictators, such as an Assad who is a “reformer” or Ahmadinejad whom we won’t “meddle” against. We successfully sought a UN resolution to protect the people, and will stick by it, but hope somehow someone will go beyond it and remove Qaddafi. We are an exceptional nation that has always acted out of humanitarian concerns in a way not true of other countries (“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.”)…

Slate’s Dickerson made a similar point in similar fashion:

…while Obama was aiming for the skies with his rhetoric, he was anxious to show just how earthbound and limited the actual mission was. We won’t go farther than the international coalition will allow. The military mission was limited and largely over. Our values don’t compel the United States to intervene wherever humanity is threatened—in, say, the Ivory Coast, Darfur, Bahrain, Yemen, or Syria.

The statement that had sounded like a bold doctrine—that what guides a U.S. decision to intervene is not just threats to our safety, but threats to “our interests and values”—came with an asterisk that led to some fine print at the bottom of the speech: Offer valid only if it’s a relatively easy military mission and we have a lot of allies and we only share a limited amount of the burden. Then we’ll get in the fight for a bit and hope for the best.

David Frum, who unsurprisingly calls the speech “preposterous,” adds that, “If he truly did not think the outcome in Libya mattered - if he had been willing to live with a Gaddafi victory - then he could have hung back and allowed events to proceed. But having committed American power to the war, he committed America inescapably to the outcome. If that outcome is a divided, war-torn country, President Obama will not escape responsibility because he only used American airpower. And if he truly is haunted by a determination not to repeat the Iraq war of 2003, he needs to remember that America won itself few friends with its indefinite policing and punishing of Iraq in the 1990s.”

Those who could get past the haze of the president’s knotty, if noble, arguments were left pondering what the president didn’t say. The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr., had a succinct summary of the missing parts: 1. How Qaddafi would be removed from power, 2. What this means for the future of Libya and the Middle East, and 3. How the president will adapt to the new dynamics of the Middle East. Others devoted paragraph upon paragraph to re-asking the questions they had hoped last night’s speech would have answered. Time’s Michael Crawley, for instance, offered this string of frustrations:

But then what, exactly, are the options in Libya? Obama wants Gaddafi to leave power—and conceded that “until he does, Libya remains dangerous.” Yet he was vague about the urgency of this outcome and what he’s willing to do to achieve it. Would Obama, for instance, consider supplying arms to the Libyan rebels (in possible violation of a U.N. arms embargo)? If not arms, how about financing? And let’s say a stalemate develops between Gadaffi and the rebels—would we be willing to recognize a separate state in the east? (The Arab league might be rather less enthusiastic about that.) And just who are the rebels anyway and what do they believe—does Obama have a clear sense of that? He didn’t offer one last night.

At Vanity Fair, Todd S. Purdum dismissed much of the speech as an eloquent rehashing of the already obvious, and had his own set of questions to ask:

But what happens now when other governments in the region—take Yemen, for example, not to mention Iran—repress their own people? Is Obama’s action in Libya really part of a broader, identifiable, and enforceable doctrine, or just a one-off—undertaken because it seemed easy enough? The president spoke for almost half an hour last night, but he couldn’t quite explain that. If he’d spoken for an hour and a half, he probably couldn’t have, either.

The question of doctrine was one that came up in many of today’s responses to the president’s speech. Bacon Jr. at the Post echoed what many are saying when he wrote that Obama “is determined not to link his actions in Libya to some kind of larger philosophy about foreign policy in general or the Middle East specifically.” And Ben Smith at Politico opened his own speech review by declaring, “The doctrine is there is no doctrine.”

Smith, kinder to the speech than most, argued that among all that was unclear, the president was “crystal clear” on one particular and particularly important point: “this isn’t Iraq; U.S. forces won’t be used to topple Qadhafi and he wants American involvement to end as soon as possible.” Smith goes on to argue that while the president may have left the Beltway unsatisfied last night, it was not calculated disappointment.

Obama’s insistence on the particular over the general isn’t just a matter of temporary modesty or even a strategic ploy to avoid being pinned down on how he would react to events that have yet to unfold. It is part of his DNA—a response to the grand strategic hopes that accompanied the Iraq invasion and, indeed, a return to his first foray into foreign policy: his little-noticed, later crucial, 2002 opposition to the Iraq war. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars,” he said at the time, and he and his aides Monday sought to make the case that in a careful analysis, the war over Libya is worth it.

Similarly—and more surprisingly—kind were Bill Kristol’s thoughts.

Still, the prevailing sense this morning is that last night was a flop. The president made a compelling case about going into Libya that, for unexplained reasons, was not compelling enough to warrant going in elsewhere. He gave a far murkier and less compelling outline of how we get out. And while he was speaking to the people at home and not to the pundits and columnists who are evaluating him this morning, one expects he may have failed with them, too. They were struggling with the same questions.

Polling shows that on the two issues on which most pundits said the president was unable to clearly articulate a position on, the public is confused and divided. In a recent Pew poll, only 39 percent of respondents said that they thought the U.S. and its allies had a clear goal in Libya; 50 percent said they did not. Forty-six percent of respondents said the U.S. and its allies should remove Qaddafi from power while 43 percent said the focus should be on protecting Libyan civilians.

The president may not have cleared the matter up for his people, but he is seemingly in step with them.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,