CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the date on which President Obama delivered his speech. It was Monday night.
In his speech Monday night, President Obama did not answer one key question on the mind of Americans—"When does this thing end?"—but he made a workmanlike effort to answer the central one: "Why did the United States decide to intervene in Libya—and why did it do so in the way it did?"
The short answer: because America could, and the benefits outweighed the potential costs. "There will be times ... when our safety is not directly threatened but our interests and values are," the president said.
A humanitarian crisis could endanger democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt—one was in the offing—and the U.S. could help carry out the will of the world community without putting U.S. soldiers’ boots on the ground.
“[A]t this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale,” Obama said. "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.”
Failing to act, Obama said, would have shown “the writ of the U.N. Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility.”
Though his military is skeptical, the commander in chief sided with those who believe that Libya poses a strategic challenge to U.S. national security.
“I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America,” he said.
Obama invoked the legitimacy of both American policy and international institutions. “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,” he said.
So why won’t the United States kill Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi or force him from power?
“If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground, or risk killing many civilians from the air,” he said. “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.” He invoked the specter of Iraq, saying “we went down that road.”
So why is Libya different than countries like Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, where the regimes in power are, to various degrees, violently suppressing dissent?
Here, Obama was oblique. His answer, basically, is that the world is “complicated,” and that Americans would have to accept a large degree of uncertainty.
“It is 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,” he said. “But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.” (The word “never” was underlined in the speech text e-mailed to reporters.)
The unrest in the Arab world “will make the world more complicated for a time. Progress will be uneven, and change will come differently in different countries. There are places, like Egypt, where this change will inspire us and raise our hopes. And there will be places, like Iran, where change is fiercely suppressed. The dark forces of civil conflict and sectarian war will have to be averted, and difficult political and economic concerns addressed. “
It's telling that Obama was deliberately vague at other times. For instance, he said that the handoff of control of the operation to NATO would cut costs for the United States but he never said by how much.
Until 2011 with its tumultuous "Arab spring," it has been decades since the president led the nation in discussion about Middle East policy. Obama officials relish the chance to mold a new foreign-policy paradigm, one that relies less on autocratic governments and their oil reserves and more on a genuine connection between Americans and citizens of the Arab world. But it will not—cannot—be entirely consistent.
Although he didn't articulate this point, the president and his aides know that from a strategic vantage point, a democratic movement in Bahrain will almost certainly be catalyzed with covert help from Iran, which wants to establish another harbor to contain the power of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, therefore, has more leeway. (That is also the home to America’s 5th Fleet.)
There is no coherent opposition force in Yemen, and the United States worries that regime change would allow al-Qaida to flourish in that impoverished country where the terrorist group has already gained a foothold.
In a briefing with reporters on Monday, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, accepted the criticism that Obama’s actions seemed inconsistent but rejected the idea that they would set a precedent that would be hard to follow.
“We do get very hung up on this question of precedent,” he said. “We don’t make decisions on interventions based on consistency, or precedent. We base them on how we can best advance our interest in the region.” That means that Obama will not use the military to intervene everywhere there exists a potential for humanitarian crisis. McDonough was quick to stress that there are other ways to pressure countries, but the implication is clear: the threshold for military intervention is whether such a move will meaningfully contribute to the furtherance of U.S. goals, which include the strengthening of international institutions.
This is a hard-headed principle to adhere to, a doctrine without a doctrine, and it will be harder if the intervention in Libya succeeds, especially if other governments interpret the realpolitik as a license to oppress.
Republicans already contend that Obama is cozying up to certain dictators, like Bashir al-Assad of Syria, while rejecting others. But few of them go so far as to suggest that democratic aspirations alone should form the basis for American military involvement—regime change and nation building are still on the outs.
A potential presidential contender, Tim Pawlenty, told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday that Obama should toughen his rhetoric against Syria, impose sanctions, and recall the U.S. ambassador.
Administration officials said that it would be premature for the president to discuss the conclusion of NATO military activities before NATO has done so. They said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak directly to the question on Tuesday and later in the week. What's certain is that it won't be the last set of questions about this third American conflict in the Muslim world.