Read more of Slate's coverage of the Libya conflict.
President Barack Obama's speech on Libya Monday night was about as shrewd and sensible as any such address could have been.
Some of his critics hoped he would outline a grand strategy on the use of force for humanitarian principles. Some demanded that he go so far as to declare what actions he would or would not take, and why, in Syria, Bahrain, and other nations where authoritarian rulers fire bullets at their own people. Still others urged him to spell out when the air war will stop, how we'll exit, who will help the Libyan people rebuild their country after Qaddafi goes, and what we'll do if he doesn't go.
These are all interesting matters, but they evade the two main questions, which Obama confronted straight on. First, under the circumstances, did the United States really have any choice but to intervene militarily? Second, for all the initial hesitations and continuing misunderstandings, would the actions urged by his critics (on the left and right) have led to better results? For that matter, have any presidents of the last couple of decades dealt with similar crises more wisely?
The answers to all those questions: no.
First, the canard of a grand strategy. True, Obama's staff seems bereft of a latter-day George Kennan, peering through the fog of the postwar (or, in our case, post-Cold War) world and devising sound principles for navigating its thickets. But Kennan was dealing with a world of two main powers; today's world is one of fractured power, much of it still very much in flux. Carving firm guidelines in stone would probably be not only impossible but dangerous.
Obama's main point was this: When, as he put it, "our interests and values are at stake," and when taking military action a) carries few risks, b) costs little, and c) may reap huge benefits, both political and humanitarian, then such action is worth taking even if the interests involved aren't quite vital.
This formulation is unsatisfying, both to the Realists (who shy from using force except in pursuit of vital interests and, even then, only when the outcome is fairly certain and preponderant force is mustered) and to the neoconservatives (who leap to use force anywhere and everywhere in the cause of universal moral values). But it reflects a sense of realism with a small r.
The brutal fact that the neocons (and their brethren among liberal humanitarians) must face is that the United States is not as powerful as it once was. (In fact, it never was, but that's another story …) Even if Obama were inclined to promote democracy everywhere, he couldn't do it. President George W. Bush got into trouble at the start of his second term by proclaiming democracy promotion as the centerpiece of his foreign policy—only to see his shining North Stars of Iraq, Lebanon, and Ukraine smolder in ashes. His proclamations also rang hollow, and provoked cries of hypocrisy, when more traditional interests compelled him to embrace the very undemocratic rulers of Saudi Arabia, China, Uzbekistan, Egypt, etc.
And the fact that the Realists must face is that sometimes force is worth using even if the material interests at stake are meager. Some Realists like to say, "Superpowers don't do windows." Well, sometimes, they do. But when they do—that is, when they intervene in the affairs of "lesser" countries—they have to be careful about setting limits in the involvement and making sure that others, especially those with closer interests, are heavily involved. In short, making sure the intervention isn't remotely perceived as neocolonial adventurism.
In this case, Qaddafi was on the verge of quashing the rebels, and he said he would go door to door to kill them and their supporters like rats. The Arab League—the Arab League!—called on the international community to come to the aid of the Libyan people. France and Great Britain—France and Great Britain!—seconded the motion. The U.N. Security Council took up the call (with much U.S. leadership), and since the Arabs had called for action, Russia and China—which didn't much like the notion—couldn't find an excuse for a veto, so it passed.