Obama's Libya speech was shrewd and sensible.

Military analysis.
March 29 2011 8:24 AM

Obama Makes His Case

The president's Libya speech was shrewd and sensible.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the  Libya conflict.

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This is precisely the way the United Nations is supposed to work—a broad coalition of world powers summoning the will to engage in collective defense. Again, how could any American president sit and do nothing, on the grounds that U.S. interests weren't quite sufficiently supremely at stake in the fight?

For those who accuse Obama of "dithering," it's worth noting, as he did Monday night, that President Bill Clinton waited a year—and stood by while a real massacre took place—before taking similar action against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. If Obama had waited for the citizens of Benghazi to be slaughtered by the thousands, his critics would be fuming, and rightly so.

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The main reason they're fuming now anyway seems pretty clear. As New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote of Mitt Romney's opinion of Libya, he "supports the current mission, except for the part where it's run by Barack Obama."

There are still many uncertainties about the Libyan operation—and it's reasonable to argue that they should have been worked out more clearly or more fully before the bombs fell. The fate of Qaddafi isn't one of these matters, or at least not to the extent that some claim. Yes, Obama said early on that Qaddafi must go—yet he's since said that Qaddafi isn't an explicit target of the military operation.

This is more a finesse than a contradiction. As Obama explained in his speech, the U.N. mandate that authorized the military operation does not call for regime change. Were Obama to expand the mandate to include it unilaterally, the coalition "would splinter," and the United States would have to take up more of the burden, including very likely putting troops on the ground. "To be blunt," Obama said, "we went down that road in Iraq," which consumed "eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars." Whether or not the fate of Iraq is worth that (and its fate is still far from settled), Libya's certainly is not.

But the fate of Libya is the most troubling part of this whole operation. The country's a wreck. If Qaddafi does fall, there are no political institutions, no parties or social groupings, no levers for the makings of a civil society or a thriving economy. It's not even clear who the rebel leaders are, what they stand for, or whether they have any true following among the Libyan people (whoever they are). Granted, there wasn't much time for postwar planning; the intervention had to commence when it did, or Qaddafi would have won. Yet, while Libya is not Iraq, the crucial failing of the Iraq invasion was the lack of postwar planning. If some countries or international bodies aren't prepared to step in quickly, with some sort of plan, Libya could easily plunge into chaos, anarchy, civil war, or worse.

Obama said in his speech Monday night that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would head to London on Tuesday to meet with "the Libyan opposition" and "consult with more than 30 nations" about "a transition to the future that the Libyan people deserve." We'll see.

There is also something worrisome about the final minutes of Obama's speech, which took flight into lofty sentiments about America's pledge of a helping hand "for all those yearning for freedom around the world." After the finely measured passages about the need to weigh our values and our interests, this finale comes off as troublingly open-ended—and perhaps dangerously encouraging to some of the world's would-be rebels who should know that, really, we're not going to come help them when their brutal dictators' bullets start to fly.

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