President Obama attempted Monday night to silence critics in Washington, explain his policy to a skeptical American electorate and take a victory lap after a U.S-lead military action in Libya largely accomplished its initial goals. Here’s a look at what we learned and didn’t learn from his address.
1. If you are looking for the Obama Doctrine, you should stop the search.
The president is determined not to link his actions in Libya to some kind of larger philosophy about foreign policy in general or the Middle East specifically.
His standard for intervening in Libya seemed to be a four-pronged: its leader had lost legitimacy, that leader was killing those who protested again him, a coalition of countries agreed that the leader was behaving improperly, and U.S. military action could make a difference without deploying ground troops.
“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,” Obama said Monday night. “We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.”
Obama and his aides have insisted that the administration’s actions regarding Libya should not be viewed as setting any kind of precedent.
2. Obama views foreign policy through the prism of his predecessor.
Obama’s repeated insistence last week that the United States was not leading the intervention in Libya was a preview for what the president bluntly said Monday night: he does not want to be George W. Bush in Iraq.
“A regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars,” Obama said. “That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”
Obama’s speech was sharpest in his notion that “real leadership” comes in finding allies for U.S. military action. An international coalition was critical to his decision to intervene in Libya and he is unlikely to deploy U.S. forces in another country without similar support.
“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, “ Obama said. “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.”
3. He rejects the charge he moved too slowly.
The president and his team have compared the time it took for the United States to intervene in Libya to that of Bosnia in the 1990s. The parallels aren’t perfect, but it took the U.S. much longer to get involved then.
“ To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians,” Obama said. “It took us 31 days.”
What we didn’t learn.
1. How Gaddafi will be removed from power
The president has said for the last month the Libyan leader must go, but it’s still not clear how. The United States is essentially rooting for a coup, but that does not ensure there will be one, who will emerge as the leader or if that leader will be a more democratic one than Gaddafi.
Obama’s comments on Libya’s future were intentionally vague.
“It should be clear to those around Gaddafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on Gaddafi’s side,” he said. “With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be.”
2. What this means for the future of Libya or the Middle East
Obama didn’t really say what happens if Gaddafi starts killing people again. Nor did he lay out what would happen if the leader of Syria or Yemen or any other Middle Eastern country started killing their people.
“The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change,” he said, referring to the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. “Only the people of the region can do that. But we can make a difference.”
3. How Obama will adapt his presidency to the dynamics in the Middle East
You could imagine a president using a major speech like Monday’s to announce he was selecting a special czar or adviser specifically to deal with the complicated set of issues happening in the Middle East.
In his first two years in office, Obama had special advisers for the Middle East peace process, health care, energy legislation and Afghanistan. He gets special briefings on the economy several times a week. So far, the president has declined to even cancel largely political events despite what appears to a historic series of changes happening in a region that is important to the United States.
The president heads to New York, where he will sit down for interviews with ABC, CBS and NBC, woo Democratic donors at two fundraising events and attend a dedication for a building at the United Nations to be named after Ron Brown, a longtime Democratic party leader who served as commerce secretary in the Clinton administration before dying in a plane crash in 1996.