Well, at least he didn’t strut on stage in a flight suit, backed by a banner heralding MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
But in his speech on Libya last night, President Obama did boast proudly of a job well done – and he even sketched the outlines of an Obama Doctrine, which is presumably designed to supplant the neoconservative Bush Doctrine. Whereas George W. Bush talked about unilateral American interventions wherever we saw fit, Obama’s nascent credo is multilateral and therefore more modest in scope – and he sought to sell Libya as a classic example of the doctrine in action.There will be times, he argued in a key speech passage, “when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are….These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us, and they are problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help. “In such cases, we should not be afraid to act – but the burden of action should not be America’s alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.”Perhaps this doctrine of multinational humanitarianism might rally the reluctant public – only 47 percent of Americans currently support the Libya war, the lowest Gallup war score in at least three decades – but I suspect that the course of ensuing events will matter a lot more than Obama’s rhetorical arguments. Indeed, his rhetoric last night failed to address certain key questions that have dogged Odyssey Dawn.Having heard and read the speech, I’m still not sure what constitutes “success.” Is it the fact that, as Obama put it, “we have stopped Gadhafi’s deadly advance” and therefore protected the civilians from a potential massacre? That can’t be the measure of success, because Moammar Gadhafi remains in power and the civilians will still need to be protected. Is it the fact that we are now transferring leadership responsibility to “our allies and partners” in NATO? That’s a dubious measure as well, if only because America is by far the first among equals in NATO.Is success to be defined as regime change, with Gadhafi ousted? No, because Obama insisted we’re not going that route. “To be blunt,” he said, in a stinging swipe at Bush’s neoconservatives, “we went down that road in Iraq…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.”Success, it appears, will be achieved if and when Gadhafi agrees on his own to step down, having bowed to political pressure (orchestrated with America’s help) and having realized that the western coalition had fatally weakened his remaining military forces. America would work for this goal by contributing “intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications.” In other words, we’ll continue to fight for one side in Libya’s civil war, as we and our allies pursue regime change lite. Obama didn’t say was how long he thought this operation would take; as his Defense secretary said on the Sunday shows, “I don’t think anybody knows the answer.” Nor did Obama spell out the extent of America’s nation-building role, in the event of Gadhafi’s exit. This was the key passage: “Even after Gadhafi does leave power, 40 years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions. The transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task. And while the United States will do our part to help, it will be a task for the international community, and – more importantly – a task for the Libyan people themselves.”The United States will do our part…You could fly a squadron of Air Force F-15s through that loophole. In short, we’ll have a lead role in owning the place – a risky proposition, given the fact that we don’t seem to know whether the rebels are budding Jeffersonians or merely the next wave of extremists. Obama provided no details.And speaking of loopholes, Obama said this: “Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” The latter sentence is endlessly elastic; we could easily invoke “interests and values” as a rationale for any intervention.Obama badly needed to close the sale with independent swing voters – Gallup says that only 38 percent of those folks back the Libyan mission – but I doubt that they sat around parsing the president’s words last night. Americans are generally interested in the end result. If events go favorably in Libya, the Obama Doctrine will look good; if Libya devolves into a quagmire, the doctrine is doomed. And until events play out, war-weary Americans will stay focused on their main pursuits, such as Dancing With The Stars. Obama spoke 7:30 last night so that ABC could stage its live show at 8 without a hitch. He didn’t dare disrupt the American ritual, for something so trivial as a war speech; he had a sufficiently tough sell without risking that furious backlash. All of which, sadly, speaks volumes about our most enduring “interests and values.”——-Tomorrow: Finally, something that’s not about Libya.