Five Target Audiences for Obama’s Libya War Speech
After eight baffling days, President Obama will address the American public about his decision to enter the Libyan civil war on the side of rebel forces.
Perhaps never in the television era has a president waited so long after launching a war or even military strikes to address the nation.
For historical context: When Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada on Oct. 25, 1983, he spoke to a national audience on the subject two days later. When George H.W. Bush sent the Army after narco-strongman Manuel Noriega on Dec. 19, 1990 he made an Oval Office address the next night. Bill Clinton spoke many, many times about the slowly escalating NATO effort in Bosnia. By the time the first bombs fell in April of 1994, Clinton had been publicly pushing for an escalation since he was running for office in 1992.
Whether it is a result of Obama’s low profile in defending the war or just general war fatigue among the American people, Gallup found initial public support for the conflict was lower than any U.S. military intervention of the past 20 years. Since the U.S. entered the war, Obama has also seen his own job approval rating dip.
Obama’s primary objective in the speech from the National Defense University tonight is to rally the American public, or at least plead for patience. While Obama’s decision to bring the U.S. into the war just before leaving the country with his family for a tour of Latin America may have shielded the president from public scrutiny on the subject, it also allowed doubts to fester.
Obama, it seems, underestimated the level of interest and concern with which the electorate would greet the involvement of the U.S. in a third war in a Muslim country. Obama tonight can be expected to make much of NATO’s agreement to take over command for the aerial assault, now bloodlessly dubbed Operation Unified Protector instead of the previous cryptic moniker of Operation Odyssey Dawn, which sounded like the name for a Cream album or a rejected title for a James Bond movie starring Timothy Dalton.
Obama will not likely make as much of the fact that the change in command hasn’t meant a change in U.S. involvement, but instead just put a Canadian general in charge.
So, while Obama mostly needs to reassure regular Americans that getting in this war was a good idea and that he has a plan for getting out of it, there are several specific audiences to which the president will also be directing his remarks.
Power Play offers five of the most important groups for the president to reach tonight:
“There wasn’t resistance. There was no one in front of us. There’s no fighting.”
-- Libyan rebel soldier Faraj Sheydani talking to the New York Times
The good news for President Obama is that the Libyan rebels have regained the momentum in that country’s civil war. The bad news is that it may be part of a strategic retreat by the Libyan army.
Bolstered by hundreds of coordinated U.S. air strikes over the past week (88 in the past day alone), rebels began advancing out of the coastal positions that once promised to be their last stand. But in their eastward push toward the capital, Tripoli, the rebels met no resistance – not even in Dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte in the heart of the country’s oilfields.
As U.S. forces continue to bombard Qaddafi’s troops as they race away from rebel territory, the call has gone up from the Libyan government – How can you attack a retreating army under the auspices of defending civilians?
Qaddafi may dress like Lady Gaga and talk like Charlie Sheen, but he is an expert at holding power and manipulating international opinion. He has not managed to stay in power for 42 years after deposing a king from the tribes now in revolt by being just a weirdo.
Obama has engaged in a strange rhetorical parsing in his limited comments on the war thus far. He has maintained that the purpose of the war is to protect civilians even as he maintains that it is the policy of his administration to push Qaddafi from power. This legalistic position is intended to preserve an exit strategy for the U.S. and avoid deepening the already acute alarm in the Arab world that the U.S. would start knocking over desert despots willy nilly.
What Qaddafi will be listening for tonight is whether Obama maintains this rhetorical division or if he begins to blur the lines. There is an increasing sense in Washington that whatever Obama does now, he cannot leave Qaddafi in power. But pushing the mission into direct regime change also leaves the U.S., already financially broken, on the hook for building a new nation in its place. By the Powell Doctrine, to which Obama seems to subscribe: We broke it, we bought it.
If Qaddafi is pulling back to make a last stand in Tripoli, that would mean using American force to root him out. The idea of blasting the city and killing innocents in a bid to root Qaddafi out must be a very unappealing thought to Obama.
If Obama sticks with the legalistic division on civilian protection and regime change, it will be a sure sign to Qaddafi that his effort to play the victim of Western aggression might work. If Obama drops the lawyer speak, Qaddafi will know that it’s time to start preparing for martyrdom or looking for exile havens – must have good plastic surgeons who accept payment in gold bullion.
Members of Congress
“It simply leaves the whole situation up for grabs in which there's hopefulness, maybe, that Qaddafi will leave or that something bad will happen to him or, in fact, that somehow these persons who are the rebels who we really don't know who have no particular government are going to form something that is more friendly to us or to the Europeans.”
President Obama has engaged in the military equivalent of a recess appointment. After three weeks of watching the Libyan civil war, Obama waited until Congress left town for a weeklong recess before starting his attack on Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces.
Democrats have mostly muted their original outrage on the subject of being circumvented. While they once spoke of the need for congressional authorization of military action, Democrats have changed their tune with one of their own in the White House.
The administration’s basic argument, now repeated by congressional Democrats, is that prior authorization was not necessary because the U.N. had blessed the enterprise – that it wasn’t a unilateral attack like certain cowboy presidents who had a paltry 40 nations on his side when invading Iraq. While it isn’t going to win the Democratic caucuses any awards for consistency, Obama can be comforted to know that he has the backing of his party’s leaders on the Libya war.
But, the still-resistant Democrats and most of the Republicans could band together to cause serious problems for Obama’s efforts. To avoid that Obama needs some plausible argument for the war but also to stroke some legislative egos.
Obama is big on name-dropping in speeches – especially bipartisan name-dropping.
When Obama used to talk about his commitment to transparency and good government, he would discuss his work on ethics with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
When he talked about his defense policies, Obama has lately favored Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. But Obama can’t tout Lugar’s support tonight. Lugar, the defense dean of the Senate GOP, backed Obama on a missile treaty with Russia, a nation-building surge in Afghanistan and more, but Lugar has balked at the idea of joining the Libyan civil war.
If Obama wants to tout bipartisan support for the Libya war, he will have to point to his old adversary Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose message on the war has been that Obama is botching a worthy effort, and many of his Republican colleagues agree with McCain only on the “botching” part. Not exactly the kind of endorsement one likes to tout unless they’re in a pickle.
Obama presumably has a name in mind to drop tonight – whether it is McCain’s or someone else’s – as a way to say, “If respected Sen. ____________ thinks it’s ok to go to war without congressional approval, why listen to some peacenik and isolationist lightweights?”
The Rest of the Muslim World
"It is obvious Syria is the target of a project to sow sectarian strife to compromise Syria and the unique co-existence model that distinguishes it.”
-- Buthaina Shaaban, adviser to Syrian despot Bashar Assad, quoted by the state-controlled press on the cause for the attacks by government troops against protesters
How many civilian protestors may a Middle Eastern ruler kill before running afoul of the emerging Obama doctrine that calls for military action in defense of “basic rules of the road” for dictators?
The Syrians are currently testing the standard, with the Assad government dispatching its army to put down a revolt within the Sunni Muslim majority in the country. Dozens are dead and reports continue to emerge of snipers slaughtering protesters.
There are many similarities to Libya – Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism. The conflict involves ancient tribal and sectarian conflict – the ruling Assad clan is part of the Shiite faith (the Alawite branch) while the majority of the country is of the more moderate Sunni faith. Like in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, such differences were downplayed during the era of Arab nationalism, but have reemerged as the regime is threatened.
The Obama administration has worked hard to make the case that Libya is unique because of the amount of firepower Qaddafi has brought to bear, but Assad and others want to know where the line is.
Obama will likely reassure them that they are still in the tolerable zone for killing dissidents.
Also watching will be increasingly skeptical American allies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere who have grown deeply frustrated with the new American standards for conduct in the region. The crackdown by the Sunni royal houses of the gulf state is at odds with what Obama has sometimes said.
The Arab media will endlessly parse Obama’s speech for signs that he has addressed inconsistencies in his policy or for suggestions about what level of civilian slaughter will be abided.
The U.S. Military
“No, I don’t think it’s a vital interest for the United States, but we clearly have interests there.”
-- Defense Secretary Robert Gates on “This Week”
American military commanders demonstrate obvious discomfort with the Libyan mission. Defense Secretary Robert Gates did his duty and appeared on the Sunday shows (though inexplicably stiff arming “FOX News Sunday”), sitting mutely while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expounded on the merits of internationalism and the United Nations.
Gates, who mostly limited himself to discussing the hows of the mission and not the whys, undercut the administration position a couple of times anyway. Gates said that Libya wasn’t a “vital interest” for the U.S. and indicated that the war could in fact be a very long one depending on what happens next.
Gates nay-said the idea of entering the war long before Obama embraced it, and his public reticence on the subject has left standing his previous warning about the dangers of getting involved.
Current and retired military officers reinforce these concerns to Power Play and other outlets. The deep concern is that with Afghanistan heating up again, sectarian violence threatening the timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and China flexing its military muscle in the Pacific, this was not a good time to add another preemptive war to the Pentagon’s to-do list.
Another worry is funding. The Libya war has been very expensive – likely approaching $1 billion – at a time when the Pentagon is deeply concerned about its budget. The government is currently operating on short-term continuing resolutions, which keeps the Pentagon on fiscal tenterhooks.
The president, meanwhile, has suggested that funding for the Libya war can come out of the non-existent budget – that there is cash available for such a contingency.
The war fighters seem to disagree and see the second half of the budget year as a brutal time: Republicans are unwilling to grant any increase in spending and Democrats are eating up capacity with new conflicts.
The president’s choice of the National Defense University at Ft. McNair for the speech is a nod to the Pentagon’s concerns. He is coming to them to talk about the war. Of course, Obama’s low-key speech at West Point in 2009 to announce the Afghan surge was something of a flop. Delivering an apologia for a war in front of an audience that will have to go fight it turned out to be something of a mistake.
The American military hated the internationalist interventions of the Clinton era, leading to a hostile relationship between the commander in chief and his forces.
Obama has shown great deference to the military so far, and will likely offer a double dose tonight.
Obama’s Political Base
“Why didn't this same moral calculus justify the attack on Iraq? Saddam Hussein really was a murderous, repressive monster: at least [Qaddafi’s] equal when it came to psychotic blood-spilling.”
Barack Obama was not the anti-war candidate in 2008. He was the anti Iraq war candidate. And with his attack on Libya, Obama has undercut the very basis for his political ascension.
Obama has strained the affection of his early supporters in a variety of ways, but he has had ideological arguments for his actions. The left doesn’t like the Afghan war, but Obama inherited it. The left doesn’t like the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay, but Congress won’t let him close it. The left doesn’t like the idea of a secret war fought with CIA drones around the Muslim world… well, he has arguments for most of his actions.
In Libya, Obama has engaged in a preemptive strike on a foreign country that posed no immediate threat to the U.S. and done so without the blessing of Congress – all things that liberals and Obama accused George W. Bush of doing in Iraq.
While Obama has lost much of his base already, the anger and objections of the intellectual core of the American left can continue to erode Democratic enthusiasm about having “four more years.”
Obama might opt to explain obliquely tonight how Libya differs from Iraq, but will likely steer clear of the subject. He can continue to reach out to the left in less public ways, but Obama also knows that his early supporters will be listening and he must duly resist the desire to appeal to the broader electorate by adopting any macho talk, lest he be freshly accused of being Bushier than Bush.