In his speech on Libya Monday evening, President Barack Obama demonstrated why self-congratulation is an awful basis for foreign policy. The stated aim of the address was to tell the American people “what we’ve done [in Libya], what we plan to do, and why this matters to us.” That might have been a genuinely interesting bit of oratory. It is not what we actually heard.
Perhaps the wrong speech got loaded onto his teleprompter, because the preachment Obama delivered fudged the past, gave us weasel words in place of real goals, and substituted a vigorous Nobel Peace Prize-winning pat on the back for any good reason to make this our fight. The evasions of fact and friction were so breathtaking that they need to be cataloged for posterity. What I offer here is only a first and flawed attempt:
1. What national interest? Obama said that when Americans’ “interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” These are two very different things. If America got into it with other nations every time they offended our values, we would need a much bigger military. (Maybe we could borrow China’s?)
By putting interests and values together, Obama tried to pull a switcheroo. He said that if he had “waited one more day” to act, a massacre might have occurred in the city of Benghazi, which might have “stained the conscience of the world.” He explained, “It was not in our national interest to let that happen.” More to the point, “I refused to let that happen.”
2. What Constitution? The “one more day” line helped to set up Obama’s justification for not seeking a congressional resolution for US actions in Libya. The administration has maintained, impossibly, that maintaining a no-fly zone is not an act of war, which only Congress has the power to declare.
Whatever you think of George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — I wholeheartedly approved of Afghanistan and was as indecisive as Hamlet about Iraq — at least he went to Congress, twice, and got them to formally authorize hostilities. Obama assures us that he launched American war planes into Libya only “after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress,” but why not at least hold a quick vote, or promise to hold one at the first possible opportunity?
3. What dithering? Obama last night painted himself as a decisive leader, but that is far from the truth. In fact, he dithered. He issued ultimata to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi. He waffled on whether the U.S. would support a no-fly zone or help enforce one if the UN voted for it, and then he suddenly decided to go all-in. Obama indecision was the main reason a congressional vote wasn’t called. There was one really good reason for this that he did his best to paper over in his speech.
4. What civil war? The thing that started the conflict, said Obama, was that “Libyans took to the streets to claim their basic human rights.” They are, in his telling “innocent people,” “men, women and children who sought their freedom from fear.” For some Libyans, that is undoubtedly true, and Gaddafi is nobody’s idea of a good guy, but the situation on the ground was much more complicated than the one Obama tried to spoonfeed us.
Libya is an unnatural political creation of three tribes in one nation, overseen by a strongman. What is happening now looks less like an uprising and more like a civil war. By enforcing a no-fly zone, the U.S. is taking sides in that civil war, though we’re doing so in a manner ill-befitting a superpower.
5. What regime change? Obama’s clear goal is regime change, but he doesn’t want to call it that. Oh, don’t misunderstand, he has “embraced the goal” of getting Gaddafi out of power and will “actively pursue it through non-military means.” In the meantime, the US and NATO will continue the bomb the crap out of the ruler’s forces and thus give support to the rebels. But, ahem, just who are these rebels?
6. What about al Qaeda? This is the point where it would be very helpful to have a clear idea of what is and is not in America’s clearly defined national interest, rather than our vague ideals. How about this one: It is bad for U.S. interests to enter a conflict on the same side as al Qaeda.
Well, that’s going to be a problem in Libya. Al Qaeda has for years schemed against the Libyan strongman. Its agents are on the ground working for his overthrow. Obama brought up al Qaeda twice in his speech but never once mentioned this troublesome fact.
Let’s grant that it is possible that al Qaeda’s influence is being overblown. But shouldn’t our president have spent some time in his self-congratulatory address explaining to us mere mortals why his recent actions do not make it more likely that an al Qaeda-influenced government will rise to power?