Posted by on March 29, 2011 in Blog

Last night, President Barack Obama delivered a 20-something minute speech explaining US engagement in Libya. The general framework of his speech was to outline why his policy on Libya was the correct approach, responding to criticism from both directions, from those who thought we should be doing more and those who thought the US should not get involved at all.

President Obama acknowledged that it is indeed true that repression against civilians is all too common in the world, and that the US cannot intervene in every such instance, especially when there are so many pressing needs at home. But he said “that cannot be an argument for never acting.” He noted that the particulars of this case made intervention the right thing to do: (a) violence “on a horrific scale” seemed imminent, (b) an international mandate for action was given by the UN, (c) a coalition of allies including Arab states was willing to share the cost, and (d) the mission could be accomplished without putting troops on the ground. Under such circumstances, the President argued, answering the plea of the Libyan people, and acting to protect our interests and values was the right thing to do. "I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action," he said.

President Obama also acknowledged that the desire to overthrow Gaddafi was also perfectly valid, and noted that this continues to be a “political” objective of the US.  But he noted that the reason why this was not a “military” objective was because of everything that was wrong with invading Iraq: (a) no international mandate; (b) the coalition would fracture and a heavier share of the costs would fall on the US, (c) as would the responsibility for what comes next; (d) it would require placing our troops on the ground in harm’s way or massive aerial bombardment that would kill many civilians.

The President’s speech was well-reasoned and very compelling.  His grasp of the situation and his intelligent reaction to it stood, as Juan Cole noted, in great contrast to the comments of some Presidential hopefuls on the other side of the aisle. Donald Trump cautioned that the Libyan rebels may be working for Iran, ignoring Iranian opposition for US intervention in Libya. Not to be out-done in ignorance, Michelle Bachmann cautioned the rebels could be “led by Hamas, Hezbollah, or possibly al Qaeda of North Africa.” In order, the first is specifically a Palestinian militant group based in Gaza; the second is a Lebanese Shiite group in south Lebanon; and the third has no popular base of support at all. How any of these groups could be leading the popular struggle against Gaddafi in Libya is not readily clear. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Mit Romney are all in favor of stronger unilateral action in Libya; except Gingrich who, seemingly stuck in the pre-2010 election mode, turned against intervention after Obama become for it. Such is a testament to the ugly face of hyper-partisanship in US political discourse when prospective candidates place attacking the current president’s policies ahead of the need to make thoughtful, informed comments.

You can read the full transcript of the President's speech on Libya here, or you can watch it here.

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