Obama Answers Big Questions About Libya

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credit: AP Photo/AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

In his speech Monday night, President Obama did not answer one key question on the mind of Americans--"When does this thing end?"--but he made a workmanlike effort to answer the central one: "Why did the United States decide to intervene in Libya--and why did it do so in the way it did?"

The short answer: because America could, and the benefits outweighed the potential costs. "There will be times ... when our safety is not directly threatened but our interests and values are," the president said.

A humanitarian crisis could endanger democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt--one was in the offing--and the U.S. could help carry out the will of the world community without putting U.S. soldiers' boots on the ground.

"[A]t this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale," Obama said. "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 Qaddafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground."

Failing to act, Obama said, would have shown "the writ of the U.N. Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility."

Though his military is skeptical, the commander in chief sided with those who believe that Libya poses a strategic challenge to U.S. national security.

"I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America," he said.

Obama invoked the legitimacy of both American policy and international institutions. "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," he said.

So why won't the United States kill Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi or force him from power?

"If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi 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," he said. "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." He invoked the specter of Iraq, saying "we went down that road."

So why is Libya different than countries like Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, where the regimes in power are, to various degrees, violently suppressing dissent?

Here, Obama was oblique. His answer, basically, is that the world is "complicated," and that Americans would have to accept a large degree of uncertainty.

"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," he said. "But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right." (The word "never" was underlined in the speech text e-mailed to reporters.)

The unrest in the Arab world "will make the world more complicated for a time. Progress will be uneven, and change will come differently in different countries. There are places, like Egypt, where this change will inspire us and raise our hopes. And there will be places, like Iran, where change is fiercely suppressed. The dark forces of civil conflict and sectarian war will have to be averted, and difficult political and economic concerns addressed. "

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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