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.

President Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama

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.

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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.

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.

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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