Obama on Libya: How Did He Do?

Tonight President Obama addressed the American people on Libya, something that he chose not to do when he initially ordered our military involvement there. Instead, he made a terse announcement and left for Latin America. Now, a couple of weeks later and with poll data looking weak, he decided to deliver the usual speech to the American people.
Was tonight’s speech effective? You can read it here. In my opinion, the biggest problem with Obama’s speeches is that he can’t resist hedging his bets. Thus, tonight’s speech included a little bit of everything. The basic rationale for intervention, as Obama described it, was humanitarian. But then, what about the multiple humanitarian disasters in Africa, some of which have been going on for years without any U.S. military action? And what about Yemen, Bahrain and Syria? When, exactly, does the humanitarian impulse kick in?
Obama invoked our national interest, but half-heartedly:

Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we wanted — if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.
It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.

This is, of course, a non sequitur. Why is our national interest suddenly implicated in Benghazi when it is not implicated across Africa, in Yemen, in Bahrain or in Syria? Obama makes no effort to explain why national security has suddenly come into play.
With his usual mean-spiritedness, Obama could not resist contrasting himself with his predecessor. But the contrast made little sense:

Moreover, America has an important strategic interest in preventing Gadhafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful — yet fragile — transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security. So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.
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.

If you can make any sense of that passage, we would like to hear from you. Obama says we have a vital national interest in Libya, and he declares that Qaddafi “must go.” Yet regime change is not our goal: “[B]roadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” If I understand Obama correctly–and believe me, it isn’t easy–he is invoking Iraq as an explanation for why he doesn’t want to overthrow Qaddafi: regime change in Iraq took too long and cost too much.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that deposing Qaddafi would be as hard or take as long. Actually, Qaddafi appears to be hanging by a thread. Obama leaves himself in an inconsistent position, where the U.S. ostensibly has a vital interest in preventing Qaddafi from terrorizing his own people, but not vital enough to do the one thing that would actually bring about the desired result: get rid of Qaddafi.
The administration’s policies toward Libya and the entire region continue to be a mass of inconsistency and incoherence. In my view, Obama’s speech tonight did nothing to obscure that fact.


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