Matt Lewis

Obama’s Libya Speech: What Worked; What Didn’t

Nine days after the campaign in Libya opened, President Obama gave a prime-time televised address Monday night at the National Defense University in Washington.

Putting aside the delay in explaining the mission to the nation — a fact that is difficult to set aside — there were certainly some strong moments in the speech.

As Howard Kurtz noted, “Barack Obama made a clear and unambiguous moral case for intervening in Libya on Monday night, raising the question of why he waited nine long days to begin the task of persuading the country.”

Obama’s rationale for going into Libya won’t satisfy everyone, but it was important that he, at least, explained his position.  As Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly said after the speech: “You may not agree with it, but Mr. Obama can explain his position.”

Like O’Reilly, I was heartened to hear Obama’s American exceptionaism rhetoric.  Some will dismiss this as Wilsonian or label him a “neocon” — but believing that our nation has a unique moral purpose that transcends strict adherence to a “realist” foreign policy could also be labeled Reaganesque.  In any event, Obama showed moral leadership — something he is not known for doing.

As in his presidential campaign, Obama also employed a rhetorical trick, whereby he would present his opponents arguments in, perhaps, a more coherent way than they could themselves — only to then dismiss them.  For example, he employed this straw man technique in dismissing the notion that other parts of the world are in greater need of humanitarian aide.

“America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs,” Obama said,”But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.”

But while Obama did address some important questions — including whether or not we would put boots on the ground (he said we won’t) — there were some important questions which he did not address.

Obama never mentioned the role the U.S. Congress should play in declaring war (in a 2007 speech, he said presidents do not have “unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”)  He also failed to address the important question regarding exactly who the rebels are that we are protecting.

In terms of laying out the moral case for intervention, an important motivational role for any leader, Obama performed better than I expected.  But when it came to answering all the remaining questions that continue to plague him, last night, he earned an “incomplete”…