The long-awaited Obama address on Libya contained many of the expected points. We knew he would remind us about what a rotten guy Qaddafi is, and the world can always use another hard look at the sins of its monsters.
There was an attempt to explain how it was imperative to “stop Qaddafi’s advance” before his evil spilled beyond the borders of Libya. President Obama offered no theories for why it had not done so during the previous forty years. He also repeated the threadbare talking point that Qaddafi had “lost the confidence of his people,” without suggesting a point during the last four decades when it was his to lose.
The mystic chords of memory were plucked, with encomiums to America’s unique history as a child of revolution, and how “the world’s most powerful nation will always be called upon to help.” We do not hear these luminous hymms when politically inconvenient oppressed people call upon us to help. We have a sacred duty to “prevent genocide,” except for the one in Darfur, or Saddam Hussein’s obliteration of the Marsh Arabs.
The president made some entirely reasonable points about how the cold reality that we cannot act everywhere should not prevent us from acting anywhere. Foreign policy is made from such grim choices, a lesson the more mature President Obama of 2011 would have found challenging to explain to the childlike Candidate Obama of 2008.
The rest of the President’s address was an exercise in psychodrama, a weird journey through the mind of a narcissist who can’t believe all the nasty things people are saying about him.
Obama’s id is wrestling with the comparisons between his Libyan intervention and George Bush’s action in Iraq. He made a point of criticizing Iraq, which had a vastly larger international coalition behind it than Obama does now, united in the struggle to depose an even more gruesome and sadistic monster than Qaddafi. He warned us that we might be stuck in post-Qaddafi Libya for a while because “40 years of terror left Libya fractured.” The left never cut Bush any slack for trying to rebuild a country traumatized by decades of terror from Saddam Hussein.
The President’s ego is very sensitive to the criticism that his handling of the Libyan situation was lazy and disengaged. He’s constructed a new narrative in his own mind, where he “created the conditions for others to step up,” leading the Europeans to declare “a willingness to commit resources.” Thus does Obama retroactively become the hero of a military operation France, England, and Hillary Clinton dragged him into, and which he authorized with a few peevish phone calls from a South American junket.
Obama is clearly working through some deep issues about the Clintons. He took a few unexpected, oblique shots at Bill Clinton, noting that “the international community waited more than a year” before intervening in Bosnia, while Obama got ordinance dropped on Tripoli “in 31 days.” He also congratulated himself for refusing “to wait for images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” You might want to put some ice on that, Mr. Clinton.
As he always does, the President sought refuge in the shadow of straw men, and worked to erase serious opponents of his policies from the debate. He declared his vindication over “those who doubted our ability to carry out this operation.” Did anyone seriously doubt we could take out the crappy little Libyan air force?
Obama portrayed his critics as offering a “false choice” between those who “question why we should intervene at all,” and others who “support broadening our involvement.” What about those of us who thought we should have intervened weeks ago, when Qaddafi was bottled up in Tripoli, after a proper debate in the United States Congress? It is possible to believe an intervention was necessary, or at least arguable, without supporting the way it was actually conducted.
Of course this President’s fragile self-image and political durability could not survive a failure in Libya, so he was careful to set the terms of success so he can escape responsibility for any outcome. A simple “Qaddafi must go” would set up a verifiable test for success next year. Instead, we’re going to work at getting him out of power through “non-military” means, but regime change is not our current military objective. It would be easy to write both the speech where Obama takes credit for killing or deposing the dictator, and the speech where he explains what a great success our no-fly zone has been even though Qaddafi is still there. In fact, you could probably do it by cutting and pasting lines from the address he gave tonight.
Obama concluded with a clumsy attempt to tie Operation Odyssey Dawn into his perpetual presidential campaign, waxing poetic about “deeply held principles” and how “young people are leading the way.” Well, young people in Palestine are firing rockets into civilian populations, and slashing Israeli families into bloody shreds while they sleep. Young people are indulging their bloodlust by helping to suppress demonstrations in Syria and Iran. It would be nice if all of their victims could find the same “friend in the United States” that Libyans have. We needed hard answers about that situation tonight. Instead, we got a journey through the tortured mind of a politician.