Obama’s Speech Answered Some Questions, Avoided Others

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Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Some of the fiercest critics of President Obama's decision to intervene in Libya were opinion columnists and political pundits, who saw no consistency and no exit strategy in the military effort. Obama clearly cares about getting these elite opinion-makers on his side; he gave a bunch of them a personal briefing on the speech before it happened. But how effective was his speech last night? As we wrote yesterday evening, many people felt Obama did a good job explaining why we got involved but struggled to clarify "when" and "how" our involvement, and the Libyan civil war we've become participants in, is going to end.

Andrew Sullivan, Atlantic:

It wasn't Obama's finest oratory; but it was a very careful threading of a very small needle. That requires steady hands and calmer nerves than I possess. But this president emerges once again as a consolidator and adjuster of the past, not a revolutionary force for the future. And one hopes that the notion that he is not a subscriber to American exceptionalism is no longer seriously entertained. He clearly believes in that exceptionalism — and now will live with its onerous responsibilities.

Eugene Robinson, Post Partisan/Washington Post:

What he didn’t do, though, was explain exactly how “what’s right” differs from what isn’t. He didn’t explain how factors such as politics or oil should figure in decisions on whether to intervene. He didn’t explain which conflicts are worthy of ground troops and which are not. The Obama Doctrine’s outlines are clear, but the details are hard to make out.

Marc Ambinder, National Journal:

It's telling that Obama was deliberately vague at other times. For instance, he said that the handoff of control of the operation to NATO would cut costs for the United States but he never said by how much.

Clive Crook, Financial Times:

Understanding better than anyone that results are all that count, Obama audaciously tried to say that the US part of the intervention is already mostly over and should be deemed a success. The threatened humanitarian crisis has been averted, America’s work is largely done, and the allies can probably handle the rest. Massacre prevented. Mission accomplished (though one must never use that phrase). Worth a try, but nobody is buying it yet.

Marc Thiessen, Post Partisan/Washington Post:

President Obama gave an impassioned, sometimes eloquent, defense of his policies in Libya tonight. But when it came to justifying the limited goals of the military mission, his speech was fundamentally dishonest. Obama presented himself as standing between two extremes — those on the one hand, who want to do nothing in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe, and those on the other who want to invade Libya the way George W. Bush invaded Iraq.

Chris Cillizza, Fix/Washington Post:

Obama spent a considerable amount of time talking about how bad things might have been if the U.S. hadn’t intervened exactly when we did. He repeatedly referred to a “massacre” that had been averted and said that Libya had been “faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale”. The “you should have seen how bad it could have been” argument is always a tough one to sell in political terms. People struggle to imagine what might have been — particularly in a country as far removed from most peoples’ minds as Libya. Still, this was the brunt of Obama’s argument in the 30-minute speech and the source of some of his best lines. “I refuse to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” Obama said in what will almost certainly be the most oft-quoted phrase of the night.

John Podhoretz, New York Post:

If president Obama had given the speech he gave last night 10 days ago when he committed our military forces to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, he would have had the best week of his presidency since the fall of 2009 — instead of one of the worst. It was a speech that spoke to the American people as presidents ought to speak to the American people — with respect, with seriousness and with an understanding that he is not our boss but our employee, whose job it is to tell us what he is doing and why.

Jim Geraghty, Campaign Spot/National Review:

Obama’s caught himself between his comments that clearly suggested regime change (Qaddafi must step down) and a strict adherence to a U.N. mandate that doesn’t include regime change. What is our goal? What do we do when America’s national interest and a United Nations rule conflict? And why are we worrying about what the U.N. says, anyway? Obama seems to be indicating we say publicly that we’re not pursuing regime change military but pursue it through non-military means, which seems like a fine (and perhaps odd) line. (If you’re trying to knock a brutal terror-sponsoring dictator out of power, knock him out of power! Don’t do it halfway!)

Daniel Larison, Daily Beast:

The speech created the impression that U.S. involvement in Libya will be brief, but Obama addressed none of the calls for defining the mission’s goals, duration, or cost. The public needed a forthright explanation and accounting of the risks that a Libyan war entails, and it received bromides instead.

Peter Beinart, Daily Beast:

I don’t know how Obama’s Libya intervention will end; in his speech, he made it seem tidier than it really is. But the speech had something notably absent from his addresses on Afghanistan: the ring of authenticity. When he said that he refused to sit by and watch Benghazi be raped, he sounded like a man speaking from the gut. Obama does not romanticize the history of American power and yet he is wielding American power. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

John Dickerson, Slate:

The statement that had sounded like a bold doctrine—that what guides a U.S. decision to intervene is not just threats to our safety, but threats to "our interests and values"—came with an asterisk that led to some fine print at the bottom of the speech: Offer valid only if it's a relatively easy military mission and we have a lot of allies and we only share a limited amount of the burden. Then we'll get in the fight for a bit and hope for the best. This isn't the Obama Doctrine. It's Obama's Libya Doctrine.

Howard Kurtz, Daily Beast:

Obama undoubtedly bought himself some breathing room, depending on how long the conflict drags on. He didn’t address that point, either, but with Gaddafi hanging on, this probably isn’t his last speech on the subject.

John B. Judis, New Republic:

Presidents and secretaries of state have not always come entirely clean in explaining why they were doing things, especially military actions .... In justifying America’s armed intervention in Libya, President Barack Obama left some loose ends and unspoken subtexts on the teleprompter, but all in all, he came pretty close to giving an argument for intervention that had a lot to do with why he decided to send American warships and planes. He also contributed a few important distinctions to the development of a post-Cold War foreign policy—something that two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall still remains murky.

David Frum, Frum Forum:

As written and delivered, President Obama’s speech on Libya was preposterous. We intervened in the midst of somebody else’s civil war. We saved one side from losing, prevented another side from winning. Now we’re declaring “mission accomplished” in the middle of the battle. If the president’s message is taken seriously, he has exposed us to the resentment and revenge of one side, while failing to earn the gratitude of the other. If the president’s message is taken seriously, America’s goals in Libya were to perpetuate an ongoing civil war without achieving any stable end-state.

Tom Ricks, Best Defense/Foreign Policy:

But I was most struck by the last few minutes of the speech, when Obama sought to put the Libyan intervention in the context of the regional Arab uprising. He firmly embraced the forces of change, saying that history is on their side, not on the side of the oppressors. In doing so he deftly evoked two moments in our own history-first, explicitly, the American Revolution, and second, more slyly, abolitionism, with a reference to "the North Star," which happened to be the name of Frederick Douglass's newspaper. If you think that was unintentional, read this.

Michael Crowley, Swampland/Time:

[T]he fact remains that Obama has surely not spoken for the last time about Libya. He may have clarified his views on the important question of when and where America will use force to defend its interests and values. His views about what obligations America may have in the aftermath remain as murky as ever.

Jonathan Capehart, Post Partisan/Washington Post:

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.

William Kristol, Blog/Weekly Standard:

The president was unapologetic, freedom-agenda-embracing, and didn’t shrink from defending the use of force or from appealing to American values and interests. Furthermore, the president seems to understand we have to win in Libya. I think we will.

Steve Benen, Political Animal/Washington Monthly:

[A]s persuasive as I found all of this, and as earnest and strong as I perceived Obama to be last night, I still can't say with any confidence what the end game of this mission is. I still don't know what happens if rebels and Gadhafi forces fight to a standoff. I'm still not sure what kind of responsibilities the West will have to keep Libya together if the regime falls.

Peter Feaver, Shadow Government/Foreign Policy:

Comparing the weeks of confusion in Libya to the months of confusion in the Balkans made a fair point: the Obama administration and our European partners have not dithered as did Clinton and the Europeans back in the day. The president's timeline, however, gave the impression of a direct march of resolve from the moment the American ex-patriates were safely evacuated until the air sorties began ten days ago. That is not quite how it happened.

John Nichols, Nation:

The president did not address the fact that the Libyan adventure is an undeclared war. In fact, he barely mentioned the Congress that is supposed to declare wars, saying only: "And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973." But the Constitution does not discuss "consulting the bipartisan leadership..." It says that: "Congress shall have the power... to declare war, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water."

Steve Clemons, Washington Note:

The President underscored the notion that major humanitarian crises that meet certain criteria can weigh heavily in our roster of other classic national interests. I understand this impulse -- but worry about it. It's very hard to see how this action doesn't prompt an appetite among other rebels in other nations and situations for an intervening force to save them -- or doesn't demand a comparison with Yemen or Cote d'Ivoire, which is arguably closer to real Rwanda-like possibilities than Libya was.

Nick Gillespie, Hit & Run/Reason:

Dropping bombs, shooting missiles, deploying massive amounts of personnel and power - all of these are generally understood as acts of war. But Obama can't admit that we're waging war because then he would have to acknowledge what his critics correctly underscore: Constitutionally, he doesn't have a right to do this sort of thing unilaterally when the country isn't facing a clear and present danger.