Published March 29, 2011
At long last, President Obama has come around to the notion that the U.S. is exceptional. He can’t quite bear to use that word, but in his speech last night he declared us “different.” That doesn’t ring quite as nicely in the ear (for instance a two-headed mule is “different,” but not necessarily an improvement over the normal variety), but it’s a positive baby step.
Otherwise, President Obama’s speech on what we’re doing in Libya was well written but ultimately scooted by a number of unresolved issues. The president sought to reassure Americans that our engagement will be limited, that it has a purpose and that it will not sink into quagmire. He was persuasive that the humanitarian mission behind our attacks on Qaddafi’s forces was real and immediate – that if we had waited many innocent lives would have been lost.
Critics have suggested that had we stepped in earlier, those lives would never have been threatened, but most would argue that the possibility of a dreadful slaughter was real. Not everyone agrees with that assessment, of course; the Council on Foreign Relation’s head Richard Haas has suggested that Qaddafi might have been bluffing about exterminating his opponents. Still, England and France were able to persuade the United States that standing by while thousands were murdered was unacceptable.
Realistically, the politics of the moment were clear: Obama faced some heat for going to war and minimizing the “military kinetic action,” but photos of a civilian slaughter would have haunted his reelection campaign.
President Obama failed to answer some of the questions that have been posed. For one, it is not clear what will happen should Qaddafi simply dig in and refuse to budge. Coalition leaders are meeting to discuss how they might entice the tyrant out and where he might go. If he balks, Libya could become a divided country. This would be an unpleasant outcome, suggesting a protracted commitment of coalition forces – a commitment that none of the countries would welcome.
The president also avoided the dicey question about whether we should intervene in Syria, Bahrain and other countries in the region. The despotic leaders of those countries have also shown themselves capable of mass murder; will we not intercede in those lands? Does our humanitarian sensibility have boundaries? Only apply to some time zones?
Also, what if the coalition splinters, as it appears likely to do? The increased aggression on the ground, and attacks on Qaddafi supporters, has prompted criticism from a number of countries that those enforcing U.N. resolution 1973 have way exceeded the mission’s intended scope. Will we sacrifice the tactical edge to maintain solidarity? At what cost to the safety of our troops?
The president celebrated the enlistment of an international coalition, but that the U.S. dominated this adventure is undeniable. We have done the heavy lifting from the start. Success, if it comes along, will be primarily an American success; failure will also redound to us.
Ultimately, the president’s speech last night, and his management of this engagement, reinforces the image of Obama as a reluctant leader. He shies away from taking chances – whether on the budget or at war. His caution committing our troops in yet another foreign land is laudable; this step was not taken lightly nor should it have been.
On domestic matters, his reticence is not so welcome. The country needs bold guidance, and a president willing to spend his political capital to move us forward. We can only hope that such a president will emerge from the next election.