Barack Obama: Conscience, Interests & Libya

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obama flags good speech.jpg
Tonight in a speech at the National Defense University, President Barack Obama shared with the nation his views on why US action in Libya was vital to protect thousands — and why it is equally vital not to make this incident a routenized pattern for other potential humanitarian interventions.
Obama stated:

. . .the United States and the world faced a choice. Gaddafi declared that he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

I am one of those who have been concerned about America’s tendency to strike first and think later, to get engaged abroad and then find our forces and power trapped rather than leveraged, to see mission creep set in, to see groups we were ostensibly helping splinter into pro- and anti-US camps teed up in a legitimacy struggle over who would rule after the intervention.
War planning can’t operate through best case scenarios; one has to account for the “slippery slope” into possibilities not originally imagined — and consider the unintended consequences triggered by large scale military action.
President Obama tonight outlined several important themes that deserve attention and, on the whole, support.
First, he took responsibility for making the judgment call that US troops needed to go in to stop a blood bath in Benghazi. The President admitted that this was a tough choice, an unsual one that is anomaly more than rule. I understand and accept the decision — though I think that Western intervention has a bad name in this part of the world, and we are on dangerous ground – even with an international consensus of support and even including the pleas for support from Libyan rebels.
President Obama made clear that there were assessments that he and his team made weighing acting and then the high costs of not acting. I think it must be axiomatic that Presidents will be more popular intervening after or during a major humanitarian atrocity than in preempting one — because the horror of nightmarish imagery hasn’t happened yet and thus isn’t as real a cost in the minds of many.
Obama seems determined to hand off the intervention to others in the international community, including ourselves through the portal of NATO — but still solidly partnered with other forces more in the lead. This is very good — and I’m pleased to hear that the President pushes this in every meeting he holds with his staff on Libya — and he’s been clear in his public statements as well that this can’t be an enduring responsibility of the US.
I think that the US will still remain heavily involved behind the scenes — particularly given our strength at complex system management and force integration. This will be a key Wizard of Oz role that a senior military commander told me we would continue to provide.
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.
I thought President Obama did a good job continuing to reinforce the limited nature of this mission, the limited exposure of the US military footprint, and that this was not going to lead to an American obsession with Messianic regime change abroad. I hope that this remains the US position — and that American forces and allied forces don’t get drawn into something from which it is very difficult to extract themselves.
Finally in his speech, President Obama reminded Americans that they must be humble about these affairs — that there is a tsunami of change in the world right now and the revolutions shaking the foundations of nation after nation in the Middle East are not about us. Some of these revolutions will fail; some will succeed.
These are fluid times — and it’s important that America express its opposition to violence against civilians, support the rights of people to assemble and protest, and to encourage reform. But America’s ability to actually save governments from their people — or alternatively, to help people in the streets rid themselves of bad governments — will be limited and peripheral.
The frame of the CNN and Al Jazeera lens cannot be on the West but rather needs to be on the people fighting hard for a different future. And that is the right call.
I think President Obama did a good job overall explaining the reasons why Libya mattered — but I’m not sure in an age when Americans are convinced their own nation is economically sinking and their jobs and services to support the middle class are being gutted that military intervention for any reasons, explained well or not, will be popular.
I have concerns that the world still sees America as caught in several traps — in Afghanistan, Libya, and more — rather than being the nation that makes global gravity work. And I’m not sure that the Libya intervention buys the United States much in the eyes of the world given how anomalous the President described Libya to be, but I do hope I’m wrong.
More later on Obama’s interesting speech.
– Steve Clemons

Comments

39 comments on “Barack Obama: Conscience, Interests & Libya

  1. kathleen says:

    Bahrain downs Iran’s Press TV channel
    Wed Mar 30, 2011 4:12PM
    Bahrain has moved to interrupt the broadcast of Iran’s English-language Press TV channel on Nilesat satellite, apparently due to the network’s wide coverage of the regime’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protests in the country.
    Press TV’s technical experts have reported that the interfering signal is being transmitted from Bahrain.
    Bahrain’s illegal measure comes following the extensive coverage by Press TV of its brutal suppression of Bahraini protesters, backed by military forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that were deployed to the country.
    This is not the first time that Iranian channels have experienced down time in the midst of the recent crisis in the Middle East.
    On March 20, Bahrain also interrupted the broadcast of Iran’s Arabic-language entertainment channel iFilm.
    On March 13, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dispatched their armed forces to Bahrain to intensify the crackdown on anti-government protesters.
    At least 24 people have been killed and at least 1,000 others injured since Bahraini riot police and troops initiated a second round of offensives against the protesters.
    The crackdown on protesters continues as Bahraini forces were spotted on Wednesday while using violence against the protesting public in the villages of Diraz, Nuwaidrat and Sanabis as well as the town of Belad Al Qadeem.
    Demonstrators in the country demand the ouster of the 230-year-old al-Khalifa monarchy as well as constitutional reforms.
    Press TV programs are now available on Nilesat on the following frequency:

    Reply

  2. Don Bacon says:

    King is correct. That’s how the Magna Carta came about in 1215 — the barons were fed up with King John going to war and sending them the bill.
    But we have a Constitution to avoid that./s

    Reply

  3. Tank Man says:

    Our country was taken to war by Presidential decree and
    Obama finally gets around to addressing his “subjects” nine
    days later.

    Reply

  4. Tosk59 says:

    Re where to send Gaddafi into exile, how about the U.K.?
    He can buy a flat (or two) next to the ‘Butcher of Hama’ (Rifaat al-Assaf) in London! (Yes, that is where R a-A lives)

    Reply

  5. Cee says:

    I keep hearing that Gaddafi is killing his own people. Same as Iraq, remember?
    Have we forgotten that the CIA encouraged the citizens of Kirkuk to rebel the same as the citizens of Benghazi?
    Zzzz.

    Reply

  6. DakotabornKansan says:

    Parsing, Deception, and Lies
    Stephen Walt, Foreign Policy, on Why Obama’s Libya speech didn’t matter:
    http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/03/29/why_obamas_libya_speech_didnt_matter

    Reply

  7. DakotabornKansan says:

    Robert Haddick, Managing Editor of Small Wars Journal, writes:
    http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2011/03/on-libya-obama-avoids-george-w/

    Reply

  8. Don Bacon says:

    “Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.” –George Orwell

    Reply

  9. DakotabornKansan says:

    Obama and American exceptionalism

    Reply

  10. JohnH says:

    As predicted, the “international community” has already begun to move the goalposts. Now it’s not protecting civilians but removing Qadhafi–regime change. Who would a thunk it?
    I wonder which CIA asset will be selected to run the highly privatized Libyan “democracy” of the future?

    Reply

  11. DonS says:

    “And I believe Juan Cole was wrong claiming that the operations in Libya don’t set
    some sort of precedent” (paul n)
    Cole is blowing smoke. He has reputation to take weak arguments and cliches and turn them into respectable talking points.
    Reasonable people can disagree about policy, but my own view is that we are coming to a point where agreement with this administration too often constitutes collusion, one step at a time.
    It was Carroll who so often notes “burn Washington down and start over”. That might well apply to the whole reeking policy establishment who are so locked into kissing up they don’t pass the smell test. And when we get to Obama he defers thoroughly to the right side of the spectrum and the politics of 2012.
    For reference on corruption gone wild:
    Petraeus to CIA?
    http://my.firedoglake.com/jimwhite/2011/03/29/petraeus-to-head-cia-would-be-obamas-worst-move-yet/

    Reply

  12. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Meanwhile, Japan is in the position of having to flood numerous reactors with huge amounts of water to avoid full meltdowns. With no place to store the deadly water, averting a nuclear disaster actually creates a nuclear disaster.
    This is rapidly becoming a global issue, with ramifications for all of mankind.
    We dither in the face of this disaster. The price will be far higher than that imposed by war.
    How confident are YOU that the NRC and the EPA are leveling with us, and protecting our best interests?
    Is Libya really going to matter if we end up with a number of Japanese nuclear reactors in full meltdown? Where are our priorites?

    Reply

  13. Don Bacon says:

    Professor Juan Cole continues his Obamaphilia today.
    “America is acting in concert with the Arab League, the United Nations and NATO, not striking out unilaterally.”
    *Arab League — Escobar describes nine of twenty-two nations ramrodded by Saudi Arabia (the Bahrain enforcer) agreeing only to a no-fly zone, but not contributing (except Qatar with its new Libya oil contract).
    * United Nations — Two other major nations supported this war, UK and France, with the latter being the primary promoter for political reasons. No other major nation supported the Libya War which is illegal under the UN Charter..
    * NATO — France and UK promoting the war, dragging the U.S. into war against Libya, a close ally of the U.S. until just recently.

    Reply

  14. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Carroll, I find your naivete inexplicable. I never would have imagined such trustful optimistic poppycock from you.
    I’m more than a little curious what mental fantasy fueled your flight to the ranks of the deranged.
    Did you have a dream that offered a glimpse of Clinton and Obama sporting halos and fluttering wings, cloud bound, with Abrams, Perle, and Bolton beckoning from their lofty cumulous perch?
    Perhaps Metzler and you can organize an ooooohhhhhm orgy of sorts, and elevate our omnipotent President and his Secretary Of State to sacred sainthood.
    Don’t forget Lieberman and Abrams, and all the other murderous snakes that endorse this action.
    Next stop??? Syria? Iran??? WWIII????

    Reply

  15. Kathleen says:

    put this up on the wrong thread
    Don Bacon “The U.S. did Libya not for human rights reasons, or to prevent a slaughter, nor a “limited humanitarian intervention,” it was done to repay Europe for helping out in Afghanistan, according to Gates and Clinton.”
    That makes sense along with the one comment that Obama made about the changes happenning in Tunisia and Egypt being interrupted by Gaddafi.
    My response to Obamas speech
    Obama: “Libya sits directly between Tunisia and Egypt

    Reply

  16. Don Bacon says:

    While the U.S. claims that it is in Libya for humanitarian reasons and not to help rebels overthrow the government, the evidence is otherwise.
    While the US doesn’t employ ground troops it is using aircraft that can cause a lot of destruction and kill a lot of people. Among other types, the Air Force has a half dozen A-10

    Reply

  17. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Excerpt…….
    “According to PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the new standards would drastically raise the levels of radiation allowed in food, water, air, and the general environment. PEER, a national organization of local, state, and federal employees who had access to internal EPA emails, claims that the new standards will result in a

    Reply

  18. erichwwk says:

    I agree with Paul N.
    The US had become a safe haven for War Criminals, as well as a place where peace activists are incarcerated.
    The US, for the elite, wealthy, and corrupt, is the place to be, a place to live beyond the reach of law and justice, provided one has financial booty to pay for this privilege.
    I also see Libya as does Pepe Escobar (thanks John H) and Vijay Prashad.
    Why Nothing Good Will Come of This-
    Intervening in Libya By VIJAY PRASHAD
    “It is a telling sign that only the counter-revolutionary regimes are excited at the prospect of this battle. They know that it is precisely the best opportunity to stop the tide of the Arab Revolt of 2011″
    http://www.counterpunch.org/prashad03232011.html
    That having been said, I wish there were more Steve Clemons who states:
    “I am one of those who have been concerned about America’s tendency to strike first and think later, to get engaged abroad and then find our forces and power trapped rather than leveraged, to see mission creep set in, to see groups we were ostensibly helping splinter into pro- and anti-US camps teed up in a legitimacy struggle over who would rule after the intervention.”

    Reply

  19. Carroll says:

    “If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;..”
    The intervention in Libya was the right decision in that particular instance.
    Whether it set ‘precedents’ or not can be nattered about but it couldn’t be the deciding factor in this particular decision.
    I for one would be delighted if it did set a precedent of using US military force for humanitarian interventions instead of global wars on terriers and empire spreading.
    Humanitarian interventions could eventually lead to less empire and terrier problems and expense for the US.
    I am surprised Steve hasn’t jumped all over the possible postive aspects of this as part of his “re-branding” of the ‘US brand.’

    Reply

  20. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Hey, good news on the ‘ol poisoned environment front, folks!!!!
    You need not worry about higher concentrations of radioactive material wafting through your lungs. The EPA has decided, as the levels rise, so too will their official criterias for what constitutes a “dangerous” level.
    What was dangerous to you yesterday is no longer dangerous to you today. Voila, problem solved!!!
    Do you want a lubricant with that, or have they already stretched it out so far that it no longer hurts?

    Reply

  21. Don Bacon says:

    Escobar (a wonderful observer) mentioned water, which reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld. I used to have a “Rummywatch” feature on my Smedley website and so I followed what Rumsfeld was saying (which was a lot). He would occasionally mention oil and water in Iraq, always the two together. Similar situation in Libya, apparently.

    Reply

  22. Cee says:

    And Syria.
    ‘Armed elements roamed the streets, occupied the rooftops of some buildings and opened fire randomly, terrorizing people,’ SANA said, quoting the unidentified official.
    That matched witness accounts, but left open the question of who was behind the shooting.
    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1370421/Syria-protests-President-Bashir-Assad-blames-armed-gangs-12-die-violence.html#ixzz1Hzt2zMKC

    Reply

  23. JohnH says:

    Pepe Escobar disects it: there’s no business like war business…and control of natural resources.
    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MC30Ak01.html

    Reply

  24. jonst says:

    The Obama Doctrine, as far I can gleam, is to give profound and moving speeches (all things relative)about the urgent issues of the day. And then to muddy through on some poorly thought out proposed solution, which may or may not, in the end make things better or worse, and call it a noble victory.
    Financial Reform. Health Care. Closing of Gitmo. Afghan/Pak region. Iraq. Stimulus package. And now Libya.
    Perhaps this has always been so. But Obama seems particularly adept at this.

    Reply

  25. DakotabornKansan says:

    The media consensus appears to be that we President Obama knows what he is talking about and has the moral vision to do the right thing even if it is unpopular.

    Reply

  26. Paul Norheim says:

    I don’t understand your way of reasoning, Kotz.
    Doesn’t it make perfect sense to offer Gaddafi a generous and comfortable asylum in America, instead
    of transporting him to Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, or some other poor African country which also do not
    recognize the International Criminal Court?
    Look: Gaddafi wrote the Green Book. And America offers a Green Card, right?
    Not only that: Just like Gaddafi, criminals on an arguably much larger scale, like Cheney, Rumsfeld and
    Bush, do not want to risk being sent to the court in Hague, which is why they mostly avoid traveling
    abroad.
    Now tell me: Would the three gentlemen mentioned above enjoy living in some suburban district
    outside Karthum, Asmara or Addis Ababa, to remain beyond the reach of the ICC – while they can
    write their memoirs in their comfortable American residences? Of course not. So why do you think
    Gaddafi is different from Cheney, Rummy and W? Don’t you think he would enjoy writing his memoirs
    from a comfortable tent in Las Vegas JUST AS MUCH as Rumsfeld enjoyed writing his memoirs from
    his former plantation house in Maryland?
    If you ask me, Kotz, Muammar Gaddafi should be offered a green card, and a permit to set up his
    tents, if not in Las Vegas, then at least on the late Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, with nurses and
    camels and plastic surgeons and a multi-million dollar deal for his memoirs.

    Reply

  27. kotzabasis says:

    Paul
    To equate, in your tasteless sarcasm, the memoirs of Gaddafi or Gaddafi himself with Bush and Rumsfeld, is a very bad taste and a bitter one to boot coming from your literary pen.

    Reply

  28. Paul Norheim says:

    From The Guardian today: “On the eve of the conference, Italy offered to broker a ceasefire deal in Libya,
    involving asylum for Gaddafi in an African country. “Gaddafi must understand that it would be an act of
    courage to say: ‘I understand that I have to go’,” said the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini. “We hope that
    the African Union can find a valid proposal.”
    A senior American official signaled that a solution in which Gaddafi flees to a country beyond the reach of the
    international criminal court (ICC), which is investigating war crimes charges against him, would be acceptable
    to Washington, pointing out that Barack Obama had repeatedly called on Gaddafi to leave.”
    —————————————————-
    But why Africa? Why not go for the obvious choice, applying for a GREEN CARD in the land of the free? Everyone
    living in the United States would certainly be beyond the reach of the ICC. I’m sure he could find a publisher for
    his memoirs too, just like Bush & Rumsfeld and so many others.

    Reply

  29. kotzabasis says:

    Steve is choosy about his

    Reply

  30. Paul Norheim says:

    Being seriously on topic: Obama made his case, but he didn’t alter my overall view
    one inch; and I doubt that his speech changed Steve’s view. (I saw him comment
    on Al Jazeera before and after the speech).
    The development in Syria gives reason for concern – not only if Assad jr. follows in
    his father’s footsteps, but perhaps especially if the regime falls. Apart from the
    implications in the region, we could witness a very nasty outcome inside Syria,
    given the complex ethnic and religious components held together by the regime’s
    brutal conduct.
    Think Iraq after 2003, or Lebanon during the long civil war.
    And I believe Juan Cole was wrong claiming that the operations in Libya don’t set
    some sort of precedent. No, the UN is “not a court”. But it’s not difficult to imagine
    a future scenario in Syria that will make it very hard to argue that R2P doesn’t
    apply to the situation. We could see a Tienanmen-like crackdown, or we could see
    something even worse during a disintegration of the country – perhaps also
    spilling into Lebanon (a country many Syrians regard as a part of Syria). It could
    actually get much worse than Libya.

    Reply

  31. Paul Norheim says:

    Is this off topic or on topic? I would say on topic, because it’s about our man in
    Havana!
    Excerpt:
    “The 6-foot-5, same-sex-married son of an Air Force master sergeant is the
    quintessential Washington figure for the new age: a self-made, uncredentialed blogger
    and social butterfly, intellectual entrepreneur, name-dropper and media networker.
    He

    Reply

  32. DonS says:

    The increasingly clear evidence that there IS a oligarchy of politicians and moneyed interests who control the trajectory of the US to the detriment of it’s people.
    Given Steve’s lukewarm reading of Obama’s speech, I must extrapolate that it was very disappointing. Reading the NYT’s story that O was concerned about ” a potential massacre that would have ‘stained the conscience of the world.’

    Reply

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  34. rc says:

    Several traps … and several distractions!
    Don’t forget to include the elephant in the room!
    “Women will not be allowed to vote in the long-delayed municipal elections in September, the election commission said Monday. Saudi Arabia announced last week that it would hold the elections, in the first political concession to antigovernment protests.

    Reply

  35. Don Bacon says:

    Obama is a wanton killer of Pakistanis and Afghans, people who are “suspected insurgents,” and a supporter of Israel doing likewise, but Gaddafi is wrong and Obama is right?
    And what happened to the rule of law? Never mind the Constitution or the UN Charter, we have to sit still for a couple weeks and then listen to why the new decider decided to start the third war against a Muslim country in a decade? This is a democracy?
    Or is this why average Americans have no use for the U.S. government.
    This whole Libya thing was a Sarkozy construct to get him re-elected. Gates and Clinton made that clear yesterday. It was done to repay NATO for helping out in Afghanistan. One stupid war breeds another, and so it goes while some people try to put an altruistic spin on it.
    The only good part of this is that the U.S. supposedly has shucked the responsibility mistake as soon as it could. We’ll see.
    Meanwhile the Saudis whom the U.S. has been kissing up to and holding hands with for awhile, while they stick it to Uncle Sam everywhere from NYC to Pakistan, and have refused to meet Gates and Clinton recently, and have refused to help the Libya rebels or provide military assistance even though we’ve sold the Saudi billions of high-tech stuff, even the Saudis, even though the U.S. and Saudi Arabia share a common enemy Iran, even the Saudis have told Uncle Samuel to stuff it!
    Let’s spend more time watching what these clowns do and not what they say.
    As for Steve, he has to stay on the A list.

    Reply

  36. JohnH says:

    Poor Steve, he is still deluding himself, believing what Obama (Bush III) says. Instead, Steve should be looking a Obama’s record–funny how Obama never saw fit to be concerned about bombing wedding parties and funeral processions in Afghanistan. Heck, his administration doesn’t even deign to keep track of the number of dead Afghan civilians, killed by “humanitarian” bombings. Nor did he care about Israel killing a thousand Palestinian civilians in January 2009. Oh, but when Qadhafi gets nasty, then Obama gets all huffy and self righteous about protecting human rights.
    POA is right. This is a load of crap. The goal posts will be moving shortly. The US will find new, “compelling” reasons to stay in Libya and help NATO turn it into a stable “democracy,” thereby wasting gobs more money. New rationale for US entanglement will be found, once the phony humanitarian rationale proves untenable.
    We have been down this road of deception too many times in the past ten years. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me thrice–you must be a gullible American…or someone who works in foreign policy.”

    Reply

  37. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “These are fluid times — and it’s important that America express its opposition to violence against civilians, support the rights of people to assemble and protest, and to encourage reform”
    Yeah right. You mean when we aren’t whoring ourselves out to Israel and standing mute when they target, maim, and execute American citizens engaged in peaceful protest??? “Conscience”??? What friggin “conscience”???
    Or perhaps we don’t speak up, (“express opposition to violence against citizens”), because the sound of sizzling Muslim flesh, ignited with white phosphorous, is a far sweeter sound to our ears than being accused of being “anti-semitic” and “anti-Israel”. And, of course, none in DC have a humanitarian streak that is as strong as their desire for AIPAC approval. “Conscience”??? What friggin’ “conscience”???
    This whole exercise is horseshit. When have we ever shown an altruistic concern for Muslims that wasn’t a charade, scripted to conceal self-serving designs? What, all the sudden we have a concern for Muslims, right on the heels of murdering hundreds of thousands of them in Iraq??? Well over a million, surely, if we include the first Gulf War and the sanctions. “Conscience”??? What friggin “conscience”???
    What a load of crap. Obama had NO RIGHT to do this. And where is the money coming from??? We put more money into NATO than France and Great Britain combined. And this crap about us taking a back seat is A LIE. What American general, or admiral, is going to cede the management and command of his troops and assets to NATO control? It will STILL be our munitions, our pilots, our planes, and our technology leading the charge, no matter what this criminal empty suit glibly offers from behind the podium.
    What is the NEXT President going to feel empowered to do? What if its this effin’ religious wackjob Huckabee? Or Palin? Bush and Obama are a hard act to follow.
    Maybe the next criminal that slimes his or her way into the White House will feel empowered to attack Iran, eh? Why not, whats gonna stop him, or her?
    This grand experiment is OVER. We ain’t what we claim to be, and it doesn’t look like “we the people” have the balls, or the power, to do anything about it, or even have the common sense and intelligence to see how far we’ve strayed.

    Reply

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