Let him be clear…

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Anyone heading into a Barack Obama speech expecting to emerge with more clarity about the mission in Libya has either never really listened to an Obama speech or is mistaken about the definition of “clarity.”

As the president’s speechwriters might write, he’s elides instead of elucidates.

And, so he did last night. Because of the nine-day wait to give a speech on military action in Libya, the president had to explain both how we got where we are and the rationale for getting us there. In fact, that was the only crystal-clear part of the speech, as Obama said in sentence No. 1, “Tonight, I’d like to update the American people on the international effort that we have led in Libya – what we have done, what we plan to do, and why this matters to us.”

Hence, the speech’s length— 3,300 words— and the mid-speech gear-shift from “the week that was in military operations in Libya” to the soaring language of the campaign trail applied to what sounded an awful lot like the freedom agenda.

Obama’s explanation of what we’ve done thus far was clear and decisive, bordering on a tad too congratulatory, as if the mission were… accomplished.

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.

His take on the future of the operations was confusing and contradictory. For instance:

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.

We will not “broaden our military mission beyond the task of protecting the Libyan people” but we will “work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power.” Which one of those we’re more committed to will likely become clear in Sirte, where rebels are stalled outside a pro-Qadaffi city. Coalition bombing runs continue while leaders deny they’re designed to help the opposition.

For those on the hawkish right, it was a night to relish the fact that Barack Obama suddenly sounded a lot like the predecessor he’s long criticized. From the speech:

For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom…

I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back, and that we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed against one’s own citizens; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people…

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.

The frequent mention of coalition partners, the stirring story of a downed U.S. pilot showing the best in American troops and the Libyans they’re helping, the deference to freedom as a universal yearning and national security tool? It all sounded familiar, and it is a logical evolution in a president mugged by reality who has already increased troop numbers in Afghanistan and backed off closing Gitmo.

For the suddenly once-again hawkish left, it was a night to deny that the president and his actions in Libya were anything like Iraq. They could take heart in Obama’s explicit drawing of that contrast, even while he used the language of the Bush Doctrine:

If we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.

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.

For apolitical humanitarians, it was a night to be enraged for the people of the Ivory Coast and to tweet Darfur over and over again in the face of this statement:

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.

This is a somewhat new position for the president.

For consistent dovish liberals, it was a night to bemoan a Democratic president’s equation of combat missions for humanitarian reasons with humanitarian assistance in the wake of national disasters (and conservatives rejoiced!):

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 for isolationist right- and left-leaning libertarian types, it was a night to recoil at the bar set for military action and the fact that a president formerly outspoken about the restraints on presidential power made no attempt to address constitutionality or legality questions.

In reference to the impending slaughter of the people of Benghazi, the president said, “It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen…I authorized military action.”

In the end, he confused the fact-checkers at the Washington Post and the AP, too, so you’re not alone.

Though I was heartened by some of the president’s rhetoric about American leadership in the world and his nod to the potential of freedom and self-determination to transform cultures, I think we’re better off looking to the actual military actions to determine the president’s objectives in Libya. (Which, to be fair, is often the case with politicians.)

The president’s speech was an occasion for many things. Clarity was not one of them.

Mary Katharine Ham