In All Honesty: Obama’s Libya Speech
On the evening of March 28, 2011, President Barack Obama preempted countless episodes of Jeopardy! all over the country to speak about the military action he recently authorized in Libya. The speech was as impassioned and eloquent as we should expect from the president of a major world power as he effectively seals the deal on World War III.
Of course, that also means that it was more persuasive than informative, in traditional political style. Obama is exceptionally good at this—some might even call him a “natural”—and the speech was indeed a work of verbal art, one that deserves to be analyzed.
It begins with a typical, boilerplate-type introduction, including the royal we and the obligatory half-hearted kowtowing to the military. Then it gets interesting.
For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom. 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. That is what happened in Libya over the course of these last six weeks.
It is hard to say which generations he’s speaking about here. The United States government has, in recent decades, been responsible for more war and oppression than any other individual nation, with no apparent regard for the risks or costs. The country has virtually no international credibility and is on the verge of insolvency because of financial recklessness, much of it due to excessive military funding. There has been little reluctance to use force, as long as it is under the right circumstances.
This alleged “responsibility to act” is a pretty selective one. Atrocities have unfolded all over the world, but the ruling elements of the United States have only seen it fit to act on a few of them. Looking more closely at the times when action was taken reveals an unsurprising pattern. In every instance, there is a politically convenient or arguable cause for action in a place where there is strategic value and/or an abundance of nonrenewable energy resources.
For more than four decades, the Libyan people have been ruled by a tyrant – Moammar Gaddafi. He has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world.
Barack Obama has presided over the implementation of some of the most freedom-quashing and exploitative actions the United States has seen since the Civil Rights Era. In only two years in office, he has already given the nod to forced X-rays and sexual assault at airports, promoted and signed a law that robs Americans of the decision of whether to purchase medical insurance, and looted the taxpayers’ futures for the benefit of his benefactors. He has continued and supported all manner of Bush-era policies that he denounced while campaigning, including torture, and has declined to even look into the crimes of his predecessor’s regime. He hardly stands on sufficient moral high ground to make judgment in such matters.
In the face of the world’s condemnation, Gaddafi chose to escalate his attacks, launching a military campaign against the Libyan people. Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted, and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off. The water for hundreds of thousands of people in Misratah was shut off. Cities and towns were shelled, mosques destroyed, and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assault from the air.
With the possible exception of sexual assault on journalists, the exact things described here happened in Gaza at the hands of Israel just as Obama was entering office. However, he launched no military or even political action against Israel. In fact, he has continued to approve the subsidizing of its violent, apartheid-inflicting government with billions of tax dollars, even after his mild request to cease settlement construction was met with sneering defiance.
One cannot claim such acts as a cause for intervention when one signs off on funding the same acts in other places.
At my direction, America led an effort with our allies at the United Nations Security Council to pass an historic Resolution that authorized a No Fly Zone to stop the regime’s attacks from the air, and further authorized all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people.
A “No Fly Zone,” eh? Is that like the no-fly zones that blanketed Iraq for the better part of the 1990s, while the world was told horrifying (tall) tales about Saddam Hussein’s henchmen murdering incubated infants and committing other atrocities? This may just be the skepticism talking, but perhaps it is unwise to take all the stories about Libya at face value.
Those who seek to start wars very often lie to achieve their goals, and obviously someone was seeking a war here. There are uprisings and violent repression happening all over the Middle East right now, but only Libya was chosen to be invaded. The interest in this action was clearly not driven by concern for innocent citizens, or else like action would be taken all across Arabia and northern Africa.
Gaddafi declared that he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.
Obama is selling this war the same way that Bush sold the war in Iraq—using dubious anecdotes to build trepidation about a perceived threat. A politician is a politician is a politician. But, again, this same kind of threat lurks in many places where the U.S. armed forces are not sent to intervene, and the president is not permitted to take this kind of action without a proper act of Congress.
It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973.
That’s all well and good, Mr. President, but there is actually a process for that. When you want to send our men and women in uniform to war, you must seek a declaration of war from Congress. “Consulting the bipartisan leadership” is not a declaration of war, no matter how enthusiastic they were about it. You are not authorized as president to deploy U.S. troops otherwise, and it should not be necessary to inform you of this fact.
In this effort, the United States has not acted alone. Instead, we have been joined by a strong and growing coalition. This includes our closest allies – nations like the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey – all of whom have fought by our side for decades. And it includes Arab partners like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have chosen to meet their responsibility to defend the Libyan people.
So, really, one could correctly call it a “coalition of the willing.” Neither a coalition nor a United Nations resolution is a substitute for proper exercise of war powers.
Moreover, we have accomplished these objectives consistent with the pledge that I made to the American people at the outset of our military operations. I said that America’s role would be limited; that we would not put ground troops into Libya; that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation, and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners. Tonight, we are fulfilling that pledge.
Does he expect anyone to believe that he launched an assault on Libya without having had operations on the ground in advance? And does he expect anyone to believe that he can be held to his word about keeping the U.S. involvement “limited”? The man saying this is the same man who pledged to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but then decided that wasn’t such a great idea after he was inaugurated. Now the military support roles are being filled with contractors and mercenaries so that soldiers can be devoted to more front-line combat.
In addition to our NATO responsibilities, we will work with the international community to provide assistance to the people of Libya, who need food for the hungry and medical care for the wounded. We will safeguard the more than $33 billion that was frozen from the Gaddafi regime so that it is available to rebuild Libya. After all, this money does not belong to Gaddafi or to us – it belongs to the Libyan people, and we will make sure they receive it.
Bush said the same thing about Iraq’s oil. Somehow it worked out to mean that multinational companies get to suck all the oil out of Iraq and simultaneously suck American taxpayers dry with sweet government contracts. In that instance, it was the second-largest proven petroleum reserves in the world. In this instance, it’s $33 billion, slightly more than the cost of a month in Iraq. Obama must think the American people especially foolish to try to pass this off on them. This Libya debacle is going to be very expensive, and he knows it.
Tomorrow, Secretary Clinton will go to London, where she will meet with the Libyan opposition and consult with more than thirty nations. These discussions will focus on what kind of political effort is necessary to pressure Gaddafi, while also supporting a transition to the future that the Libyan people deserve. Because while our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives, we continue to pursue the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to its people.
Despite the success of our efforts over the past week, I know that some Americans continue to have questions about our efforts in Libya. Gaddafi has not yet stepped down from power, and until he does, Libya will remain dangerous. Moreover, even after Gaddafi does leave power, forty 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.
It is not the place of the president of the United States, unilaterally or with the aid of other nations, to remove the leader of a sovereign nation without a declaration of war from Congress. It is not the place of any nation or coalition of nations to dictate the form or composition of another government either. This is the same “spreading democracy” nonsense that Bush peddled about his ventures into Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is no less wrong or arrogant coming from Obama about Libya.
It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.
To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.
See above. There is nothing wrong with acting on behalf of what’s right, but in this case it does require an act of Congress, and it seems awfully suspicious coming from a person who ignored and even approved funding for wrongs of the same magnitude elsewhere.
Moreover, America has an important strategic interest in preventing Gaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful – yet fragile – transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the UN Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security. So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.
Bush told the same alarmist story about Iraq, that allowing Hussein to remain in power would “destabilize” the region and empower ruthless dictators, thrusting the Middle East into a political Dark Age. Is it any truer when presented in the delicate prose of Obama?
Now, just as there are those who have argued against intervention in Libya, there are others who have suggested that we broaden our military mission beyond the task of protecting the Libyan people, and do whatever it takes to bring down Gaddafi and usher in a new government.
Of course, there is no question that Libya – and the world – will be better off with Gaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.
To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq’s future. But 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.
Pressuring a leader to leave power while his country is under siege and legions of soldiers stand at his borders is hardly “non-military means.” Bush gave Hussein the same kind of gun-to-the-head offer to leave office in 2003, right before he launched the invasion. It was an attempt to unseat a leader essentially through military force then, and it is the same thing now.
We have intervened to stop a massacre, and we will work with our allies and partners as they’re in the lead to maintain the safety of civilians. We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power. It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gaddafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But it should be clear to those around Gadaffi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on his side. With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be.
And so on, and so on, ad nauseam. It is a little boring to continually point out the parallels with Bush’s defense of the Iraq war, but they’re too numerous to ignore.
As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than keeping this country safe. And no decision weighs on me more than when to deploy our men and women in uniform. I have made it clear that I will never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally when necessary to defend our people, our homeland, our allies, and our core interests. That is why we are going after al Qaeda wherever they seek a foothold. That is why we continue to fight in Afghanistan, even as we have ended our combat mission in Iraq and removed more than 100,000 troops from that country.
It is not a power of the president to unilaterally make war, but perhaps it should be expected for such an astute student of Bush to believe otherwise. The worldwide war on the ill-defined and discriminately applied label of “terrorism,” brought to life during the collective trauma that followed a national tragedy, is not a proper justification for further military action. Americans elected Obama because they expected him to end policies like this, not continue and expand them.
There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security – responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. 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.
However, when led by men like George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the U.S. will only answer that call under certain conditions and against certain adversaries. Gaddafi has the extreme misfortune of ruling a country that is both wealthy with oil and strategically important, so Obama has answered the call this time. But in Bahrain? Yemen? The Congo? Anywhere that is inconvenient and doesn’t serve strategic or resource needs? Nope.
That’s the kind of leadership we have shown in Libya. Of course, even when we act as part of a coalition, the risks of any military action will be high. Those risks were realized when one of our planes malfunctioned over Libya. Yet when one of our airmen parachuted to the ground, in a country whose leader has so often demonized the United States – in a region that has such a difficult history with our country – this American did not find enemies. Instead, he was met by people who embraced him. One young Libyan who came to his aid said, “We are your friends. We are so grateful to these men who are protecting the skies.”
One might even say that he was greeted as a liberator, á la Operation Iraqi Freedom.
My fellow Americans, I know that at a time of upheaval overseas – when the news is filled with conflict and change – it can be tempting to turn away from the world. And as I have said before, our strength abroad is anchored in our strength at home. That must always be our North Star – the ability of our people to reach their potential, to make wise choices with our resources, to enlarge the prosperity that serves as a wellspring of our power, and to live the values that we hold so dear.
But let us also remember that for generations, we have done the hard work of protecting our own people, as well as millions around the globe. We have done so because we know that our own future is safer and brighter if more of mankind can live with the bright light of freedom and dignity. Tonight, let us give thanks for the Americans who are serving through these trying times, and the coalition that is carrying our effort forward; and let us look to the future with confidence and hope not only for our own country, but for all those yearning for freedom around the world. Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.
Again, it is unclear to which generations he is referring, but whoever wrote the speech did a good job of tidily tying its introduction to its conclusion. It is a very well-written speech deserving praise on the grounds of its structure and phrasing alone, a speech worthy of being called a presidential oration. But that doesn’t change the slanted message it presents, nor does it excuse such warmongering by the very man who was carried to the White House under banners of peace, honesty, and change.
This kind of interventionism is the opposite of peace and honesty, and it is no change from the politics that voters rejected when they elected the “Yes We Can” president. It is the same product in a different box, the only substantial difference being that Obama didn’t make the mistake of allowing the issue to become a prolonged topic of public debate before he acted. Bravo.
Honest men taking urgent measures to do the right thing do not offer slews of varied reasons why people should approve their actions. They do not bounce all over the spectrum rationalizing what they did. The reasons are simple and compelling, and they are consistent with previous behavior on similar occasions. Obama’s justification address for his incursion into Libya’s sovereignty is not composed of words of an honest man. America is being taken for a ride, again.
[Thanks to the Wall Street Journal blog Washington Wire for the text of the speech.]