Here are some things we know about President Obama’s prime-time speech tonight regarding his decision to engage U.S. forces in (ahem) “kinetic military action” in Libya.
First, it was long: At a little more than 3300 words as prepared for delivery, it was nearly half the length of this year’s State of the Union address.
Second, it didn’t address lingering questions about whether the action was constitutional, or criticism arguing that Obama should have sought Congressional approval before the strike; the word “Congress” appeared only once in the speech, when Obama alludes to having consulted “the bipartisan leadership of Congress.” Needless to say, no form of the word “Constitution” appeared at all.
Third, it was probably Obama’s worst-delivered major speech as president. At his best, he is a genuinely moving orator. But tonight, as Obama fumbled words and projected an aura of anxious, irritated certainty, he resembled—in both content and delivery—no one more than his halting, reticent predecessor, George W. Bush.
Here’s what we don’t know after tonight’s speech: why we’re at war with Libya.
Obama asserted on multiple occasions that it was in our “national interest” to intervene in Libya. Why? Well, it’s still not entirely clear. Obama warned that had we not acted, Gaddafi might have gone forth with a “massacre” that would have “stained the conscience of the world.” But massacres—terrible, tragic, and barbarous as they are—have happened before, and will almost certainly happen again, without U.S. intervention. What makes this one different? Obama never offered a convincing explanation, probably because there isn't one. Even his defense secretary, Robert Gates, admitted just a few days ago that America does not have a “vital interest” in Libya. Instead, the president fell back on assertion: “When our interests and values are at stake,” he said, “we have a responsibility to act.”
Obama may not have been able to justify the mission, but he assured Americans that it was done in cooperation the international community. And he congratulated America and the U.S.-led coalition for moving swiftly:
To summarize, then: in just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a No Fly Zone with our allies and partners. To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians.
Kudos to you, America: Your military is able to wage war swiftly even in the absence of clear goals or anything resembling an endgame.
And lest anyone doubt the might of the American war machine, the U.S. military is even able to conduct quick, poorly justified military actions while managing several other needless, expensive wars in the background. The president chided “those who doubted our ability to carry out this operation,” retorting that “the United States has done what we said we would do.” Which is what, exactly? Not “war,” but “time-limited, scope-limited military action,” or something. Never mind, I guess, that no one—not even the president—really seems to know just why we’re doing even that.