Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Belated Or Not, President Obama's Libya Address Hit Most Of The Right Notes

There will be times . . . when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are.
I have not taken to the fainting couch over President Obama's "failure" to give a prime time address on the NATO campaign over Libya, nor do I care a fig that he spent several days in South and Latin America and not hankie wringing in the White House Situation Room. For one thing, Obama did give a radio address about Libya and has answered questions almost daily, so it's not like we don't know where he stands. Al that so noted, a grand gesture probably was overdue.

Where Obama stands is his usual cool and calculating, if occasionally inconsistent, self when it comes to foreign policy. He has said that the era of the U.S. going it alone a la George Bush has passed, and it has. That the U.S. would lead the early stages of Operation Odyssey Dawn, which has come off like clockwork, before turning over major responsibility to other NATO and now thankfully Arab League air forces (if still too few), who have given the overmatched rebels some breathing space and sent Libyan
forces packing to Tripoli where they will make a last stand.

So more out of curiosity than anything, I missed my usual Two and a Half Men and Sanford and Son reruns last night and tuned into a 28-minute address many pundits claim the president should have made a week ago.

How did he do?

First and foremost, he had to placate an American people who are war weary, for while there is support for the Libya mission, Gallup reports that it is the lowest of any U.S. military intervention of the past 20 years. Here he succeeded in refusing to sugarcoat the task, stating that the mistakes of Iraq would not be repeated and a policy of unilateralism avoided.

Second, he had to reassure a public preoccupied with domestic economic concerns that intervention in Libya serves U.S. interests and that U.S. ground troops would not be deployed to a third Muslim country. Here he more or less succeeded by casting Libya not necessarily as a vital interest beyond the humanitarian emergency but the region as a vital interest.

Third, he had to commit to an end game without tying the Pentagon's hands, a task made more difficult because of the nebulousness of the U.N. resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and
the chances of the mission becoming a protracted civil war being pretty good. Here he fell short because of uncertainties over what will happen in the days -- or weeks or months -- ahead.

Fourth, he had convince someone who also was not watching sitcoms -- Muammar el-Qaddafi -- that it is game over. Here there was no succeeding because the Libyan strongman is barking mad.

Finally, he had to deliver a convincing message to the rest of the Muslim world. Here he succeeded while not specifically referring to the pro-democracy unrest sweeping the Middle East but alluding to it in the context of the Libya mission being a product of that unrest and assuring protesters that the U.S. would stand by them.

Photograph by Jim Young/Reuters

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