The President addressed the American people last night and defended his Libya policy. If the speech was hardly as shrewd as Fred Kaplan put it at Slate, neither was it as bad as Scott Johnson judges it at Powerline.
The Associated Press has a "fact check" piece on the speech in which the facts do not come out on the President's side. We aren't really turning over command to NATO as the President flamboyantly declares; the mission isn't narrowly focused on saving lives, as he claims; if we really have an important strategic interest, the President might have made that case to Congress; we haven't "stopped Gaddafi's advance" and the United States obviously can "turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries" because we are doing so in scores of cases in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Fair enough, but the simple theme of the speech was plausible and almost makes for a slogan: when our national interests and our moral principles align, we probably ought to put our muscle behind it. It would be in bad taste, perhaps, to ask what happens when it's one and not the other.
The President's speech aligns his policy with one faction on the Left, which has been admirably represented by The New Republic. That faction is searching for a foreign policy that is a) Not Bush and b) nonetheless muscular when it comes to humanitarian interventions. I note here that b) is a lot more evident than a). To mention one example, we intervened in Libya to stop atrocities that haven't happened yet. That makes all the sense in the world, but isn't it rather "preemptive"?
One passage in the speech was intended to restore the President's "not-Bush" credentials. I thought it was a remarkably honest statement of something that President Bill Clinton would never have been honest about.
The task that I assigned our forces -– to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a no-fly zone -– carries with it a U.N. mandate and international support. It's also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do. If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.
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.
That is what a "not-Bush" foreign policy means. It doesn't mean that we won't fight preemptive wars against the dictator du jour, it just means that we will fight them from the air and on the cheap. Maybe cheaper is indeed better. President Bill Clinton's air war against Slobodan Milošević and his policy-free no-fly zone in Iraq are examples.
But there is real moral peril in the President's words when he explains why putting US boots on the ground would be a mistake.
The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.
It's one thing to try to cut the risk in blood and treasure. It's another thing to try to evade responsibility. These are the President's words and they are damning. He really thinks he can insert American military power in Libya while washing his hands of responsibility for "what comes next".
Responsibility is not just a buzzword. It's not just about who can blame us for this or that. Responsibility is real and it is about the consequences of our actions. See: karma. Suppose that the consequence of the President's actions is that Gaddafi's regime falls and a small cell of Al Qaida operatives gets control of Libya. The U.S. will have to deal with that consequence. It won't matter that we avoided any contact between American leather and Libyan sand. It won't matter that the President tried to pretend that someone else was in charge. We, the people of the United States, will have to deal with the consequences of Barack Obama's decisions and indecision.
That is what responsibility means. The emphasized line above didn't get in the President's speech by accident. Somebody and probably several somebodies thought it was a good idea. The President didn't object and he said it to the American people. One wonders whether Barack Obama has ever taken responsibility for anything.