It appears Barack Obama wanted to downplay the significance of America’s Libyan military action — the nation’s third simultaneous Middle Eastern conflict — so he held back making a major national address about the rationale, broad strategy, and definition of success in this theater of conflict. That was a mistake, and I am happy he attempted to correct it last night.
The president committed American troops to a military action in Libya on March 20. That date, coincidentally, was the date of my induction into the United States Army 59 years ago in 1952. I served on the frontlines in Korea in what is still called a “conflict,” rather than the war that it was. Many Korean War Veterans and veterans of other wars still chafe at — and are resentful of — that designation. Barack Obama finally spoke to the nation about the Libyan conflict this past evening.
When America’s fighting men and women are placed in harm’s way, it is impossible credibly to treat that fact as if it is of minor significance. The people need to hear from a president when weapons are being fired at another nation in their name.
That is the case whether the fight is relatively minor, as when President Reagan directed military action against the island of Grenada in the 1980s, or as major as when President Franklin Roosevelt led the nation in the fight against fascism in the 1940s.
That is especially the case when the president has made the decision to enter into combat against another nation without the formal advice and consent of Congress, as was done in this fight against Libya.
The president is to be commended for coming to this realization and stepping before the cameras last night.
What the nation saw was a man who has discovered the difference between directing rhetoric against a war as a candidate, and a man who must exercise executive military authority as the commander-in-chief. Candidate Barack Obama of 2012 it seems may sound a different note on the trail that year than he did during 2008.
That will mirror the evolution George Bush made from the man who during the 2000 election called for a humble U.S. foreign policy into a committed Wilsonian-interventionist president ready to charge across the globe in an effort to install western-style Democracy hither and yon.
Indeed, what was most remarkable about the speech Obama gave last night is that Bush likely would have been very comfortable this very day espousing the same themes about his invasion of Iraq in 2003. As a matter of fact, Bush sounded many of the same themes when justifying the invasion of Iraq last decade.
Please do pick up a printed copy of Obama’s speech and read it through the voice of Bush — it’s not hard to do.
The Obama speech was beautifully crafted, but it let off more of a flash of heat than placed an enduring light on what we are doing, why we are doing it, and when this conflict will end.
The president emphasized that we are trying to stop a humanitarian crisis, but exactly why did he choose this one — of the many that are raging or have the potential to ignite — to take a stand? What will happen if the best we can manage is to embed this conflict in an enduring stalemate of rebels in grinding attack against the Libyan strongman, Col. Moammar Gaddafi, which winds up creating a slow-motion disaster equivalent to the fast-forward carnage Obama says his military campaign was designed to halt?
Alternatively, what happens if Gaddafi decides to leave or is toppled?
Colin Powell, my friend, often warned if the U.S. enters military action, once we break a country we morally are bound to fix it. If there is regime change in Libya or the nation fractures into two or more parts, how is the U.S. not on the hook for billions of annual aid to keep that land from becoming a lawless expanse of North African real estate ripe for takeover by a terrorists looking for their next safe harbor?
The president’s lyrical speech was an effervescent piece that appealed to the American spirit of idealism, but it did not also elucidate matters for the nation’s equally abiding sense of realism and practicality.
Obama told us why he decided to get the country involved in this armed conflict, but he did not move forward and give a sense that he knows how he eventually plans to get us out of it.
Sure, we have handed command to NATO, but for all intents and purposes we are NATO. The president emphasizes that we began this action at the behest of the United Nations, but the United Nations took action at the request of the United States and our allies (of which we always are first among equals).
No matter how anyone tries to dress this action as something else, it is American, and our people deserve to know when and how we can claim victory and leave.
The White House has said the secretary of state would provide greater detail about the Libya exit strategy today in London. Over the next few weeks and months, the President will have an opportunity to tell … the rest of the story.
I hope for the good of the nation, and as a leader of the world of nations, we get it right.
P.S. We still — more than 60 years after the U.N. committed to use military force on that peninsula — have some 35,000 troops or more in Korea.