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Libya intervention: Obama's speech won't quiet the critics

March 28, 2011 |  6:01 pm


When he finally spoke at length to the nation Monday evening about the U.S. military intervention in Libya -- a speech some aides acknowledged would have been better if it had come earlier -- President Obama needed to answer at least three basic questions:

Why are we intervening in Libya's civil war? How deeply are we committed? And how long will we stay involved if Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi doesn't do us the favor of falling soon? And how would Obama have us distinguish Libya from other Arab countries in upheaval -- from Bahrain, say, or Yemen or Syria?

Obama gave a clear answer to the first question but only half-complete ones to the other two.

Why are we intervening? Mostly for humanitarian reasons -- "our responsibilities to our fellow human beings," Obama said. He added that a victory by Kadafi would also have adverse effects on more traditional U.S. interests by sending refugees into Egypt and sending other dictators the message that repression works. But it was striking how much emphasis Obama put on his own brand of American exceptionalism. "Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries," he said. "The United States of America is different."

How long will we stay? Still not clear. Obama made it clear that he wants U.S. military action to be limited, with no American boots on the ground. But he also made it clear that he intends to persist until Kadafi is out. "It may not happen overnight," he said, but "history is not on his" -- Kadafi’s -- "side."

And why intervene in Libya but not, say, in Syria, where the government is just as repressive? Obama said Libya was a special case. "At this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale," he said. "We had a unique ability to stop that violence."

Stop asking for one clear principle, he said. There is no easy rule; the decision depends on the particular costs and benefits in each case. "It is true that America cannot use our military whenever repression occurs," he said. "But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right."

Monday's speech won't quiet Obama's critics or satisfy every citizen's legitimate concerns. It left too many loose ends. There are plenty of questions to ask beyond those three. So the president has a lot more talking -- and listening -- to do. But at least he's made a start.


Libya: What's better -- a plan or saving lives?

Editorial: The Libya calculation

Doyle McManus: Obama's nuanced call to arms in Libya

Tim Rutten: Does duty call in Libya?

--Doyle McManus

Photo credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press

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