Barack Obama's speech on Libya last night was a curious beast both ambitious and cautious at once. The president surprised Washington by articulating a big idea about American power. But he may have disappointed Americans by dancing around the challenge that remains in Libya.
Obama was clear enough, to be sure, about why he chose to intervene in Libya. With his army outside Benghazi, Obama said, Moammar Gaddafi was prepared to commit "a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world." That would not just have been a moral abomination, the president argued, but a strategic calamity that might send droves of refugees into Egypt and Tunisia, straining their fragile transitions; it would also set an example to other tyrants that "that violence is the best strategy to cling to power." Moreover, Obama said that to allow Gaddafi to defy the United Nations would be "crippling [to] its future credibility."
This was a fulsome explanation, though there's also plenty to critique: The United Nations only took substantive action in Libya at Washington's strong urging; Obama reversed the causality here. It's not self-evident how a wave of refugees would spoil the political transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. And the U.S. is currently propping up another Middle Eastern ruler who has violently repressed protests.
But so what? Those points were largely window dressing for Obama's grander idea about American power abroad. Conservatives have accused of doubting whether America has a special, "exceptional" role in the world. But tonight Obama put the lie to that charge. "For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom," Obama said. To allow a slaughter in Benghazi would have been to "brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and... would have been a betrayal of who we are." As Chris Cilizza notes, this happens to be a powerful appeal to America's pride and patriotism. At the same time, Obama also explained that this isn't a license for fighting evil anywhere and everywhere: "We must always measure our interests against the need for action," he said. In Libya, the U.S. had the "unique ability" to act thanks not only to our military power but also the international support behind it.
Such talk will please liberal interventionists and conservative hawks alike. (Yes, John McCain approves.) But for many Americans, some basic questions may remain unanswered. Obama assured the public that the U.S. is taking on a supporting role in NATO operations (though the AP is skeptical) and won't try to remove Gaddafi by force. "To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq," Obama said, adding that "regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."
But then what, exactly, are the options in Libya? Obama wants Gaddafi to leave power and conceded that "until he does, Libya remains dangerous." Yet he was vague about the urgency of this outcome and what he's willing to do to achieve it. Would Obama, for instance, consider supplying arms to the Libyan rebels (in possible violation of a U.N. arms embargo)? If not arms, how about financing? And let's say a stalemate develops between Gadaffi and the rebels would we be willing to recognize a separate state in the east? (The Arab league might be rather less enthusiastic about that.) And just who are the rebels anyway and what do they believe does Obama have a clear sense of that? He didn't offer one last night.
Finally, what about Colin Powell's famous "Pottery Barn rule"? Imagine that Gaddafi is toppled, and his army and security forces are crushed or melt away. Perhaps tribal warfare rages over the country's oil wealth. Maybe al Qaeda leaps to exploit and aggravate the instability. Violent anarchy could break out around the country. Sound familiar? That's what happened in Iraq. We don't need to invade Libya to see an Iraq-like outcome. And in Libya the result could be a loss of life on a scale potentially greater than the massacre we likely averted in Benghazi. Having facilitated a change in regime, can America really stand by and watch that happen?
Obviously it's too much to expect a president to address every worst-case scenario that might result from his policies. And it's entirely possible that Gaddafi will soon be on a Lear jet to some friendly African nation to live out his life in luxurious exile. Moreover, the White House says that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will offer more detail about the Libya endgame during public remarks in London today.
But the 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.