President Obama Explains Why We’re in Libya, and No Place Else

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Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

At the outset of his 28-minute speech on Libya, his first extended remarks on the subject since military action began ten days ago, President Obama promised to address "what we have done, what we plan to do, and why this matters to us." "What we have done" was fairly clear-cut, and not the salient part of the speech: Muammar Qaddafi was threatening to kill many of his own people, America and its allies agreed to implement a no-fly zone and bomb his troops, and so far, so good.

More important is "what we plan to do" and "why this matters to us." On the former, Obama promised to continue handing off responsibility for the war effort — he never referred to it as a "war," of course — to NATO. But while America's diminishing role will be welcome news to a war-weary nation, one of the most prominent concerns about the intervention has been how it will all ultimately end, and Obama didn't offer anything resembling a concrete forecast on that front. He wants the Qaddafi regime to fall, but he won't make that a goal of the American military. "To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq," he said, and it "took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars." Instead, Obama said he'd continue to use non-military tools to seek a settlement to the conflict and Qaddafi's ouster. And if that doesn't work? If the poorly trained and poorly organized "rebels" can't defeat Qaddafi's mercenary army on their own? Still unclear.

But it was on "why this matters to us" that Obama was most effective. One of the criticisms of Obama's decision to intervene in Libya has been the lack of consistency in his foreign policy, and the precedent it sets. Why Libya and not, say, Syria, or Bahrain, where governments are also brutalizing innocent civilians? That's the wrong question, Obama says. We don't need to make a broad rule and apply it everywhere. Yes, Americans have a duty to uphold our "responsibilities to our fellow human beings" and never "turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries." But we should only intervene militarily when action comes at a reasonable cost and carries with it a reasonable chance of success.

It's a worldview of idealism combined with pragmatism — trademark Obama, really. Let's not stop atrocities everywhere; let's do it where it's not that hard, fairly popular, and safe.

Was it convincing? If the speech persuaded Americans that going forward we'll have a supportive and cost-efficient role, the idea of using America power to nobly uphold our ideals around the world will probably start to go down a lot easier. We think Americans in general are proud of the way the country has, on occasion, chosen to promote the "bright light of freedom and dignity" around the world, as Obama put it. As long as it makes sense for us, too, of course.