Obama made what I believe was the best speech of his career to date this evening at 7:30.
I’ll let my sister break it into pieces and dissect it if she wants, but here is my reaction in a nutshell.
The Basic Premise:
The United States must be a moral beacon and stand for the inalienable rights of oppressed people when they seek liberty and ask for our aid.
The US cannot afford to turn a blind eye to uprisings like the ones in Libya and Egypt and forsake those who would follow in our footsteps…the cost of doing so cannot be measured in dollars and lives.
However, we cannot afford to commit ourselves unilaterally to a just cause and not force our allies to pay their share of the price for sustained western freedom…we went down that road in Iraq (a direct quote there) and it cost us thousands of lives and roughly a trillion dollars and success is not guaranteed even at that price.
Can you spot the contradiction?
What we have here is a logically very correct and reasonable message that is nonetheless COMPLETELY wrong. A solid (at least for now) outcome to a prickly problem in Libya that is nonetheless completely unsettling going forward. A diplomatic victory and a grave moral defeat. A brilliant speech and a bankrupt speaker.
Obama correctly pointed out, for example that he is often presented with a false dichotomy when a situation like this arises. To the congress, there are two choices – do nothing because we can’t get caught up in everyone’s business…it’s bleeding us dry; or do everything you possibly can to ensure victory if you do act (and in this case, you should). There are of course other options. You can equivocate. You can take measured action and seek the approval of the “broad coalition” (which, BTW, is considerably smaller than the coalition Bush secured for the earliest days of the Iraq conflict, but that’s neither here nor there). You can play a supporting role. And you can achieve some measure of short term success by doing this. It does save you money this fiscal year. It does keep our casualties down. And we don’t need to do a lot militarily to cripple a man like Ghaddafi. That’s all true.
I’m quite certain Obama feels very satisfied with the outcome of this sequence of decisions. He can claim he took decisive action to save lives in Libya. He can claim he sided with freedom fighters over a tyrant. He can claim he got his allies to help us considerably more than Bush did in Iraq. He can even claim that he took this more measured, safer path because he was concerned for the lives of American soldiers, and maybe that’s even true to some extent. But when all is said and done, he cannot claim that he has made America appear strong in the eyes of the international community, and he cannot claim that his actions are those of a powerful commander. In essence, what he’s done here is cede morality to NATO. America doesn’t fight your battles anymore, lovers of freedom…you’d better hope the French will. Or Canada. Or, if you’re lucky, Great Britain…at least they have a few military victories under their belt. 🙂
And I think Obama has presented us with a false dichotomy of his own. To hear it from Obama, we spent a trillion dollars going to war with Iraq and the alternative was free. There were no lives at risk, no threats to national security, no economic costs of being forced to continue to do business with a despot on his own terms (since the UN clearly had no influence on him). Of course we know that the choice in Iraq wasn’t a trillion dollars and thousands of American lives or no cost at all. It was the marginal cost of fighting the war vs. the marginal cost of allowing Saddam to continue to wave two middle fingers at the U.S. and get away with it. When other despots see guys like Saddam Hussein bite their thumbs at the U.N. and the U.S. standing by silently…or bowing to the despots as Obama did to the dictator of China (I will not call that man President…to be President, you must preside over a government…not run one unilaterally…that’s why they call them Presidents), they get bolder…they become more aggressive, and it costs us lives and resources…and worse…it costs us allies. The Iraq war may have been started on false intelligence, but that doesn’t mean it was unintelligent. Nor does it mean you get to rewrite history and claim that Operation Iraqi Freedom was entirely needless.
And I haven’t event touched on the moral question (because Bush, unfortunately, didn’t touch on it his entire two-term reign). Obama hypocritically praises himself for standing for freedom and saving lives in Libya and ignores the lives we saved in Iraq by stopping an evil dictator from murdering his own people just as Ghaddafi was preparing to do this month.
Having said all of that…I do think that, at this time, a limited response in Libya is reasonable. I’m not saying Obama’s choices were entirely wrong here…I think I’d rather see the U.S. take point in NATO military operations with significant financial and military support from our allies…but the bottom line is that, for now, things are moving in a positive direction in Libya…or at the very least, it could be a heck of a lot worse. I just fear that the media will report this as the only correct approach to foreign policy and draw the same false dichotomy re: Operation Iraqi Freedom that Obama himself drew. And I fear that will have consequences the next time a tyrant thumbs his nose at the U.N. and they continue to prove how useless they truly are.