For a man who didn’t want to elevate U.S. actions in Libya to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by delivering an Oval Office address, President Obama just delivered a speech worthy of the venue. Did it answer all of the questions asked by members of Congress on the right and the left, particularly the one about what victory would look like? Um, no. But Obama did state clearly why the United States stepped in to corral an international coalition and why it must relinquish its customary lead role.
Obama summed up the rationale for U.S. action in one neat paragraph addressing those in Washington who argued against intervention.
… given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country — Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.
This was a discreet operation: “In this particular country”. . . “at this particular moment. . .”
The world demanded action against Moamar Gaddafi: “an international mandate for action. . .”
The United States was not acting along: “a broad coalition prepared to join us” . . . “the support of Arab countries.”
The world answered a call for help: “a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves.”
Two phrases anchored everything Obama said. One is in the aforementioned paragraph — “the costs and risks of intervention.” The cost and risk in terms of American lives and in terms of treasure it no longer has. Another was “interests and values.” As in, “[W]hen our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” Or: “There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are.”
In such cases, we should not be afraid to act — but the burden of action should not be America’s alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because, contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.
Once again, Obama made it clear that the United States did not go it alone. Not in a humanitarian mission in Libya and not in paying for or leading it.
As Marc Ambinder points out in his National Journal piece and Gene Robinson notes in his blog post, unanswered questions remain. And surely there are more things I could say about the speech once I’ve had a chance to let it marinate. But, so far, I liked what I heard.