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Obama on Libya: President explains everything and nothing

President Barack Obama spoke about the conflict in Libya at the National Defense University on Monday.
REUTERS/Larry Downing
President Barack Obama spoke about the conflict in Libya at the National Defense University on Monday.

I watched President Obama last night explain his Libya policy.

He either said everything or he said nothing — or both, and I’m leaning toward the last.

After the speech, the AP did a fact-check that included this:

“In his pre-presidential book ‘The Audacity of Hope,’ Obama said the U.S. will lack international legitimacy if it intervenes militarily ‘without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands.’

“He questioned: ‘Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur?’”

Now he is the decider and the Libya operation is his first decision in favor of a war, a war of choice, his choice.

Is there “a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands.”

Let’s give a flat, unhedged “no” to that one.

I’ve read the text of the speech several times. Every so often, I think I’m on the verge of getting his explanation, but then … nope.

He said it’s best to act multilaterally. But he’ll act unilaterally if necessary. But not in this case, which is OK because he was able to assemble all the elements of multilateralism. So does that mean that if China or Russia had vetoed the U.N. resolution, he would have allowed Gaddafi to slaughter the population of Benghazi? He didn’t say.

He did say that not to act in this case would have been “a betrayal of who we are.” But on the other hand, “we must always measure our interests against the need for action.”  

He mixed our “values” (like, presumably, our preference for democracy and our opposition to oppression) in with our “interests” (which turns out to mean so many things that it means nothing) and said that “when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” On the other hand, “America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs.”

Right after the speech, I heard Wolf blitzer say on CNN that “I think we just heard what I would call the Obama Doctrine on the use of U.S. military force.” Really, Wolf? If so, here’s the doctrine, as best I can tease it out of the speech:

If there’s a really evil dictator who’s been in power 40 years and has even attacked Americans (although many years ago) and is about to slaughter thousands of his own people when all they have done is seek their universal human rights, and if the potential victims request American aid, and if the U.S. has unique military capabilities to prevent the slaughter and has allies willing to help it, and if the action is sanctioned by a U.N. resolution, then the Obama Doctrine calls for U.S. military action (provided that the U.S. role can be focused on the early days of the action with an opportunity to turn over command of the ongoing operations within a few days).

Otherwise, if some or most or all of those conditions are absent, the Obama Doctrine might lead to a different decision.

I’m starting to feel funny about mocking so unkindly a president who clearly was struggling with his enormous responsibilities in a situation like this. I’m worried that I (like Obama when he wrote the passage cited above from “Audacity of Hope”) have wished for a clear set of criteria that the public supports and the world understands for the use of military power.

And it may be that when you actually have the decider job, about all you can do is to try weigh all the costs and possible costs (many of which you cannot know) of action or inaction, and then weigh the likely benefits (ditto on the knowability of those) and then you decide.

Comments (21)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/29/2011 - 08:01 am.

    Hey Eric – Obama’s rationale seems remarkably similar to Bush’s for going into Iraq. I believe it was Thomas Friedman who said the reason we went into Iraq was because *we could* – we didn’t attack Iraq because it was a threat – precisely the opposite – we attacked because the Bushies thought it would be a cakewalk and an example. Obama’s reasons for going into Libya sound remarkably similar – little nuances adding up to “we could do it” so we did.

    By the way – did you notice when he talked about our downed plane in Libya he conveniently left out the fact that the rescuing helicopter dropped 500 lb bombs on and strafed the Libyans who were in the vicinity! Freedom, baby.

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 03/29/2011 - 09:56 am.

    Good one, Mr. Black.

    On President Obama’s speech and then some:
    Loving the man, not the message is a hard call but the message was as consistently vague as a fog covered morning.

    So in order to listen to other voices, I start another day reading the words of that muckraking cynic and right-on too often wordsmith and mind like a shark devouring every move in the Mid-East and then some…Pepe Escobar over at Asia Times.

    I burned my tongue on that first sip of coffee after reading the harshest of the harsh in his series on the state of involvement and all the dust-under-the-rug he sweeps out that puts any/all foreign policy advisers from the Pentagon on down as merely the entrails of the Wolfiwitz/Cheney/Bush and their corporate sponsors; the oil barons indeed. Throw in France and the House of Saud and we look like dupes where who’s-on-first is not Obama but a crew of leftovers from past administrations still functioning in their devious ways educating him and us into another messy war; or wars; a series of confrontations’ to insure somebody like corporations will make a profit but not you or me, eh?

    Not big on persuading others since I may be but street-wise only; politically, looking through the proverbial knot hole one could say…but it’s pretty hard to throw that honest babe Escobar out with the bath water on this analysis…he’s been prophet-wise, on-spot too may times. just don’t burn your tongue on the brew…

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/29/2011 - 10:02 am.

    Obama is situational ethics par excellence; I doubt that there will ever be a simple ‘Obama Doctrine’.
    In this case, the situation seemed to be:
    1. Immediate action could save innocent lives.
    2. Immediate action was possible without involving American ground troops.
    3. NATA and U.N. approval (cover if you will) for these actions was quickly available.
    4. Corollary to #1: any delay would have cost lives.

    Differences with Bush and Iraq:
    Libya is not a major oil source.
    No U.S. ground troops were committed;
    corollary: air attacks can be stopped immediately; ground troops take a long time to withdraw.
    Regime change does not appear to be Obama’s primary motivation; Bush personalized Saddam much more.

  4. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/29/2011 - 10:22 am.

    Paul, 1) Libya is a huge oil producer, especially a huge supplier of oil to Europe. If you don’t think that has something to do with their sudden jump on the ‘war is ok’ train… 2)We’ve had troops on the ground already. I’d be surprised if we didn’t have them on the ground right now. 3) Ground troops are pretty much the only certain way of keeping Qaddafi from killing more civilians. If we really want to save lives we will have to get some boots dirty. 4) Whether or not Obama wants Qaddafi out seems to change day by day.

    I can’t shake the feeling that there is no way Candidate Obama would ever have agreed to go along with President Obama. Funny how two years in power changes someone.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/29/2011 - 10:27 am.


    Unlike Obama, Bush received permission from congress.

  6. Submitted by Steve Rose on 03/29/2011 - 10:45 am.

    Bush’s third term references aside, this all seems vaguely familiar to something else. I know, … it is the economy.

    President Obama backed away from his call for regime change, retreating to a position of protecting the people. Regime change can be measured, it is bimodal, it did or did not occur. Protecting the people is like protecting jobs, one can claim jobs created and jobs saved without the need to measure them. Libyans created and Libyans saved; look for such claims of success, based on computer models.

  7. Submitted by Dwight baker on 03/29/2011 - 10:48 am.

    President Obama is our CEO
    Governor Barbour is an empower
    GE made $14.2 billion in profits but paid no taxes
    AT&T in the White House they are on the Board too
    By Dwight Baker
    March 29, 2011

    The USA is Corporate Powers —WAR MACHINE

    We the people have thought all along —-We were a sovereign nation— but we are not. We are a corporation and our job is warmongering for the other corporations that we aligned.

    So the Board of Directors gave Obama the job to go about Warmongering and he is doing just that. For that is in the best interest of the corporate powers.

    Barbour is raising the banner that the Republicans and Democrats are at odds—Not true they answer to the same Board of Directors

    So what about all those others we elect to watch our backs? It is all a diversion to think we have power when in fact we are powerless.

    There’s been a lot of talk about General Electric and the fact that it made $14.2 billion in profits but paid exactly zilch in U.S. corporate income taxes last year. GE is on the Board of Directors so tell me why? We never get a dividend for doing our part as warmongers providing our money and blood that made them all prosper?

  8. Submitted by Brian Simon on 03/29/2011 - 11:22 am.

    Rob Levine writes
    “Obama’s rationale seems remarkably similar to Bush’s for going into Iraq.”

    You must mean President Bush’s assembly of a coalition force to drive Saddam out of Kuwait, rather than the invasion of Iraq by his son. The latter justified his war on faulty premises, including fabricated intelligence. Before engaging in conflict with Libya, neither President Obama nor his team bore false witness to the UN or made specious claims about mushroom clouds. To equate the premises for war in Iraq and Libya is to completely rewrite and whitewash history.

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/29/2011 - 11:28 am.

    Note that Bush’s permission to invade Iraq was tied to his claim that Iraq was responsible for 9/11.

    Eric was discussing Obama’s action; not NATO’s.
    Libya is a major supplier of European oil, which undoubtedly conditions their reaction.
    We produce about 40% of our own oil; most of the rest comes from Venezuela and West Africa.
    Re: ground troops:
    please support the statement that American troops are based in Libya.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/29/2011 - 11:29 am.

    I seem to remember something about there being some oil in Libya?

  11. Submitted by Erik Hare on 03/29/2011 - 11:42 am.

    I think Obama is keeping all of his options open because, rather obviously, the series of situations we will be dealing with are unfolding constantly. Intervention in places like Syria clearly remain on the table.

    Is this an intelligent man who is avoiding getting pinned down to remain responsive to a fluid situation or a guy with no moral compass at all doing what he feels like? I have the same debate going on my own blog right now.

    All I can say is that most of our debate is focused heavily on the US rather than the way this all plays out in the rest of the world and/or our ongoing obligations. That gets pathetic quickly.

  12. Submitted by myles spicer on 03/29/2011 - 01:12 pm.

    I think there is much more here than Libya; and it truly is convoluting to the world and of course Obama.

    This movement for freedom and fairness has been cooking for decades — now it is boiling over with better communication and bolder young people.

    We have been on the wrong side of history for the past century. What’s more, we still are straddling complex issues with support to the Saudi kingdom…opposed to Kaddafi…opposed to Assad…support for the leaders in Yemen. All ver confusing, and “convoluting” as America attempts to reassess and readjust to the impending shape of tomorrow’s world.

    Sure, Black is right; we are confused. In a sense I have sympathy for Obama on this one — the fact is there are so many (too many?) moving parts in play right now. I guess just stopping Kadaffi from evil doings is OK for the immediate time, and a fast decision. But the proof of where America is heading as these new governments emerge is yet to be determined, and it really is, and will be, a vexing task.

  13. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/29/2011 - 01:31 pm.

    Brian – I wasn’t comparing Bush II’s lies with Obama – I was comparing the actual reasons for the wars, i.e. Bush II invaded Iraq *because he thought it would be easy and cheap*. That seems to be Obama’s rationale for Libya, even though it is very difficult to tell when Obama is lying, since he is SO good at it.

  14. Submitted by Dan Kaufman on 03/29/2011 - 02:05 pm.

    I think Eric’s analysis is excellent. However, I would add one more point to the “Obama Doctrine.” That is, the country we attack must not have nuclear weapons. This rules out a similar attack on North Korea if they were to choose to broadly attack their own citizens.

    I read at least one more analysis that the US would not be attacking if Quaddafi had gone ahead with plans to get nukes. Iran must certainly be paying attention to the US/NATO response in Libya and this would certainly reinforce their desire to have nuclear weapons, and maybe starts to justify this desire in terms of self-defense.

    Obama has always had a hard deck to play, and again I think he is doing his best here in the face of no really good options. However, there are always unintended consequences of war, and more nukes for countries like Iran may be one of them.

  15. Submitted by Richard Pecar on 03/29/2011 - 02:15 pm.

    I don’t understand the rational driving the administration’s approach to Libya — or Afghanistan — or the healthcare law — or banking reform — or monetary policy — or implementing “green energy” — or improving infrastructure.

    The President’s speeches aren’t clarifying much.

    If our country spent a dime on clean, green energy alternatives for every dollar we spend protecting our interests in drilling for oil…we would be much better off.

  16. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/29/2011 - 02:25 pm.

    #9 – Paul, you are wrong!

    Even if Bush tied Iraq to 9/11 – congress approved.

  17. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 03/29/2011 - 02:56 pm.

    Eric, it sounds like you’re trying to find a doctrine in the specifics of Libya. I’m not seeing a lack of clarity. It seems he’s saying we’ll use force in those rare instances where the particular circumstances of a situation mean force will do more good than harm. Libya is unique. It’s not only at war rather than just experiencing a government using sometimes deadly force to break up demonstration, but Libyans clearly asked the outside world to intervene. I know of nowhere else in the world right now where people are asking for outside intervention and there isn’t already some foreign or international body involved.

  18. Submitted by Steve Rose on 03/29/2011 - 03:20 pm.

    I would like to remind the cowboy-Bush-rushed-to-war crowd that the multilateral posse regarding Iraq included 49 nations. Seven participated in the invasion force (UK, Spain, Australia, Poland, Portugal, Denmark), and 33 nations provided troops to support the occupation. And, the Iraq invasion force was supported by Iraqi Kurdish militia troops, numbering approximately 70,000.

    While Bush requested and received a congressional resolution to support his actions, the allegedly articulate one made no such case before Congress. Who’s a cowboy? Who rushed to war?

  19. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/29/2011 - 04:35 pm.

    Paul Brandon, you said that Libya wasn’t a major source of oil. I pointed out that it in fact was. No, it’s not a major source of oil for the US. Either was Iraq in 2003. If you were making some other point, it wasn’t very clear.
    Re: ground troops. Who went in and brought out the downed pilots? The Marines. As to whether there are still troops there, I don’t have any firm knowledge, only speculation. It would fit with some of the troop movements though.

  20. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 03/29/2011 - 06:57 pm.

    Eric #17. The Ivory Coast.

  21. Submitted by David Willard on 04/03/2011 - 10:38 pm.

    If there was a Republican President pulling this in Libya, MinnPost would be all over it, five articles a day! Behold, the new Left! The Progs that have no conscience

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