Published March 31, 2011
If you watched President Obama's speech on Libya and are still confused, you are not crazy or alone.
The speech wandered around the globe and through history before ending in a maddening contradiction. Consider the opposing reactions of two very smart conservatives.
Robert Kagan, writing in The Washington Post, hailed the speech as "Kennedy-esque," while John Bolton blasted it as "pathetic" and a "dog's breakfast" on Fox News Channel.
Both are right, because Obama's 28-minute address neatly divides into two main themes. One was brilliant, the other flopped. Unfortunately, it's the rhetoric that soared, while the policy is a mess.
Some of the president's most compelling lines, and Kagan's focus, dealt with America's historic role as the beacon of liberty, a surprising twist coming from a president who had apologized for that history. Monday, he spent a few minutes in JFK's "bear any burden" mode.
"Born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way," Obama said. "Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States."
Earlier, he said that while others were free to turn away from Moammar Khadafy's killing of his own people, "The United States of America is different."
That's a shocker from a man who told aides it would be easier to be the president of China because there was little scrutiny on China's leader. Still, Obama's belated embrace of American exceptionalism is progress to cheer.
Yet connecting his Libyan war to exceptionalism was the speech's weak link, which Bolton nailed. The connection flopped because Obama has an incoherent policy patched together on the fly.
The effort failed even though the president tried to enlarge the context by using Libya to illustrate how he sees the proper use of American power. But it sounded more like a description of an instinct than a true doctrine, proving what I had in mind when I wrote Sunday that "the Obama Doctrine" is really just a reflection of his supreme confidence in his own skills. The Obama doctrine is all about Obama.
The speech also continued the fiction that the United States will take a supporting role in Libya, with NATO assuming command. In truth, there is no NATO without the U.S., and any assertion otherwise is odd because, by making it, Obama claims both leadership and a supporting role.
But the largest problem is with the end game. There, Obama turned to mush, repeating that he wants Qaddafi to go, but insisting that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."
As for what happens if Qaddafi does go, the mush grew thicker: "The transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task. And while the United States will do our part to help, it will be a task for the international community, and -- more importantly -- a task for the Libyan people themselves," he said.
Translation -- we don't have a clue, or a plan.
Instead, he found a straw man to destroy, one that presents another staple of his speeches, "a false choice." The straw man is anyone who "question[s] why America should intervene at all," and the "false choice" he sees is the insistence that we have to intervene everywhere or nowhere.
No serious people are making either argument, but the fact that Obama raises them just to demolish them reveals the hole in his plan. He goes on offense because he has no defense.
He should save his energy for Qaddafi, Syria and Iran. Those are the real enemies of freedom and America.