Obama’s speech on Libya

In the end Barack Obama’s speech on Libya will not matter very much. If things go well, Gaddafi leaves or is made to leave, and the aftermath isn’t too bloody, the operation will be deemed a success, and Obama will get much of the credit. Most of the issues now exercising Washington–lack of consultation with Congress, the initial hesitation, the subsequent lack of clarity about goals, the cost, the question of consistency (if Libya, why not Syria?)–all of this will evaporate. If it goes wrong, Obama will get much of the blame, and the complaints will suddenly be potent. The speech was just all right. It wasn’t commanding or inspiring enough to move public opinion and have any bearing on the outcome.

Understanding better than anyone that results are all that count, Obama audaciously tried to say that the US part of the intervention is already mostly over and should be deemed a success.

[T]onight, I can report that we have stopped Qaddafi’s deadly advance…

In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners…

[W]e’ve accomplished these objectives consistent with the pledge that I made to the American people at the outset of our military operations…

So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: The United States of America has done what we said we would do.

The threatened humanitarian crisis has been averted, America’s work is largely done, and the allies can probably handle the rest. Massacre prevented. Mission accomplished (though one must never use that phrase).

Worth a try, but nobody is buying it yet.The speech did, I think, give a pretty clear and straightforward account of the administration’s reasoning. Vital security interests of the sort that would justify unilateral action were not at stake, Obama said. He insisted that the US has a right (and its government a duty) to act unilaterally if need be on those occasions. But, he went on, this was not to say that the US had no stake in the Libyan struggle, or to deny that purely humanitarian demands carry weight in themselves. Having measured the force of these values and less-than-vital interests against the US capacity (its “unique capabilities”) to intervene productively, he thought it was right, in concert with others, to take carefully limited action.

We will see how productive the intervention proves to be, but this way of approaching the decision does make sense. If you doubt it, don’t just list the policy’s all too obvious dangers: test it against the alternatives–something I have not seen Obama’s critics do. One option would have been to do nothing. In other words, abstain with China and Russia on the UNSC resolution. What a splendid message to the world that would have sent. Or maybe vote for the resolution, then commit no resources to enforcing it–the usual European approach to global leadership. Thankfully, the US is better than that. Alternatively, go all in, make regime change the goal, and target Gaddafi–but now without international backing. That would have been a heavier burden and an even bigger gamble. The course of action Obama chose is risky, to be sure, but when you think them through the alternatives look worse.

Whether this amounts to an Obama Doctrine–a doctrine after the fact, as it were–I would question. Not as it stands, I think. What makes an interest a vital security interest? (Is it a vital security interest to deny Iran the bomb?) When is a humanitarian demand so pressing as to require participation in a risky intervention–made riskier in some ways by the very fact that it is a partnership? It is less a doctrine than a statement of the obvious to say, this must be weighed against that. There are too many questions and too few answers for the approach Obama described to count as a plausible new theory of international intervention. We will need a few more worked examples.

Still, I thought the substance of what Obama said was mostly right. The tone and delivery were a bit uncertain, though. The speech had strangely boastful elements. You would never suspect from hearing it that France and Britain made all the running in getting this project under way. As Obama tells it, this was a US-led venture from start to finish (and, as I say, on his account, it is now mostly finished).

In [cases such as this], we should not be afraid to act–but the burden of action should not be America’s alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action… Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all. That’s the kind of leadership we’ve shown in Libya.

Hmm. The US did the mobilizing. Others were persuaded to step up. I see. Yet, despite the bragging, it seemed to me a diffident and unconfident performance. He tripped over the autocue once or twice. He seemed unsure where to look: into the camera at the TV audience, or around the room at the National Defense University. Presumably he delayed making the address to underscore the limited nature of the engagement and its goals–and maybe chose not to speak from the Oval Office for the same reason. One way or another, this intervention is a big deal. The timing and venue of the address were mistakes.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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