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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama on Libya: A Calculus, Not a Doctrine

Those Americans who simply wanted a direct explanation of how, why and when the United States decided to participate in a military intervention in Libya were probably satisfied with the president’s speech last night at the National Defense University. Those who wanted “clarity” about the future, though–the exact fate of Gaddafi and his regime, and the “precedent” set for future situations–were undoubtedly disappointed, and were more than adequately represented in the immediate carping of pundits and Republican flacks.
FWIW, I posted an insta-analysis of the speech at the Daily Beast, emphasizing that there was little or nothing Obama could do to satisfy his GOP critics or assuage those consumed with the need for “clarity” about an impossible-to-predict future. Indeed, Obama’s rejection of the search for an all-size-fits-all “doctrine” struck me as the heart of the speech; he insists humanitarian interventions, and their terms and durations, inherently involve a case-by-case calculus, not the invocation of some binding precedent.
I don’t get the sense that progressive critics of the Libya intervention were much convinced by the speech, even though Obama tried pretty hard to suggest that the U.S. military role in the intervention has now entered a new and radically smaller phase in support of a NATO-led mission. Perhaps the feeling is that we’ve heard similar reassurances from this and previous administrations on other engagements. But even if it lacked certainty, it should be clear the president took a stance that does not create some endless open-ended commitment in Libya or bind the country to similar interventions (or the disappointment of expectations of interventions) in the future.
The trappings and timing of this speech were unusual, and may have also reflected the White House’s desire to make Libya more of a police action than a war. Or maybe something else was going on. Here’s Salon‘s Alex Pareene:

The speech was on not at television prime time, but at a time that generally belongs to network affiliates. While I thought at first that that was because the White House didn’t want to make this look like a proper presidential address about a proper war (it wasn’t from the Oval Office and all that), but apparently that was just because ABC didn’t want them preempting Dancing With the Stars. And the networks immediately cut to their regular programming. For some reason on NBC that involved Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush listening to Kid Rock. It was… weird.

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