Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Making His Case

Listening to President Obama’s speech last night, he was very forceful in telling the world what we weren’t going to do in Libya. There will be no overthrow of Col. Qaddafi by force on our part, nor will there be U.S. forces on the ground there. Instead, he made it about humanitarian goals and America’s role in protecting lives.

To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

He also made it very clear that Libya was a crucial spot in the world and that our intervention there was different than places such as Bahrain, Yemen, or Syria, pointing out that Qaddafi is much more aggressive against the rebels in his country than the other leaders are in theirs.

I came away a bit more mollified that we weren’t really going to full-tilt war there, but also remembering that we’ve heard that before from presidents sending in American military forces in some way or another for nearly 100 years. What starts out as a humanitarian effort doesn’t always end that way. That’s not to dismiss the idea of doing it for the most lofty of goals — to prevent a massacre — but once you start, it’s not easy to stop.

History also shapes the politics. I have no doubt that President Obama was mindful of Rwanda and Somalia and our lack of response there twenty years ago and the accusation that it was more in our national interest to save the people in Kosovo than it was to prevent genocide in Africa. And the president seemed to go out of his way to kill the right-wing meme that he doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism; that we have a duty to prove to the world that we are the moral leaders and we’re the ones who have the right and the obligation to stop aggression. He didn’t exactly say “America! Fuck Yeah!” but it was awfully close.

The president has been criticized for not consulting Congress before committing our air forces to the allies, even though he stated that he had consulted with the leadership. Given the current state of dysfunction on Capitol Hill, it’s not surprising that he didn’t wait for a full-blown resolution from the House. Knowing them as they are now, the only way they would have given him any kind of blessing would be if they had repealed healthcare in the same measure.

So, did the president make his case? If he was trying to make it clear that our role is purely humanitarian and that we are there to prevent more bloodshed and make life untenable for Col. Qaddafi, he certainly hit those points. But no matter how lofty the goal, situations like this have a funny way of making up their own mind as to what the final results will be.