Barack Obama's Libya Speech: How Will It Sound to Tired Ears?


Americans are tired of war. Very, very tired of it.

President Obama's address to the nation explaining the 10-day old involvement of American forces in a coalition effort to take out Libyan air defenses makes it nearly 10 long years of war speeches from the presidential podium, explaining why, yet again, America is the world's indispensable nation, and why we must act.

Will Obama's speech work for the American people, and make them less distrustful of an intervention they are less supportive of that other recent military endeavors at their outset? I don't think so. If you're not an expert in foreign policy thinking, the various schools and nuances, Obama's speech is sure to sound like what it was on a macro level -- another president explaining why we had to be part of another war. And after President Bush, the war-justifying speech is among the least credible genres of presidential address.

Did America stop a massacre of innocents in Benghazi? That is, from a moral perspective, an absolute good. But, politically, it's hard to get people excited about preventing a counterfactual history. Would Obama have been excoriated mercilessly on the domestic front for weakness had America not intervened and such a massacre occurred? Almost certainly. And would not intervening have sent a politically dangerous message to other dictators "that violence is the best strategy to cling to power," as Obama argued in his speech? Most likely, yes, as well.

In the end, though, the only thing that is going to matter to the American people is if Qaddafi goes, or is rendered forgettable. The polls show people want regime change. If the rebels regroup, and are strengthened, as seems to be happening, that will help shift perceptions of the intervention. But even as the U.S. backs off, and what remains of the operation proceeds under NATO leadership, intellectually and emotionally, America has taken a side in the conflict. And Americans like to win.

This is one of those speeches that was more for the experts than the American people. An address to the nation that will not resolve anything for them. The only thing that will make this intervention seem wise is if Qaddaffi goes, or rendered so isolated and powerless that he can be forgotten. (Should he go soon, that would make Obama seem very wise, indeed.)

Obama had to give a speech explaining America's involvement in Libya. But this was no clarion call to arms. It was instead a reminder to a war-weary nation that it is exhausting to be globally exceptional.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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