President Obama offered some powerful and nuanced explanations in his speech Monday night about the airstrikes he authorized in Libya, but two of the most significant criticisms he has faced went unanswered, at least directly.
"I refused to let that happen," Obama said of the atrocities that would have ensued in Benghazi had Muammar Qaddafi's forces advanced unchecked. On the broader question of Middle East unrest, Obama said that America "must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles," though it cannot dictate outcomes.
But the president chose not to acknowledge the more prominent points raised by his critics.
He said little about his consultation with Congress before authorizing the strikes, and nothing directly about why the U.S. military would strike in Libya and not elsewhere.
Since the strikes began on Saturday, March 19, lawmakers of both parties have accused the president of failing to consult adequately with Congress before entering the U.S. military into armed conflict. Criticisms have ranged from Rep. Dennis Kucinich's (D-Ohio) assertion that a declaration of war was necessary to complaints that Obama is bound by the 1973 War Powers Resolution to ask Congress for permission unless U.S. security is imminently threatened.
Obama did not take these criticisms head on -- at least not for more than a moment.
He mentioned his consultation with congressional leaders before the attacks, but that was it. "It was not in our national interest to let that happen," Obama said of the potential massacre in Benghazi. "And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973."
On the question, "Why Libya?" the president did not acknowledge claims that, if protecting citizens is his doctrinal standard for military intervention, the U.S. should also launch strikes in Yemen, for instance. He chose instead to focus only on reasons for acting in Libya: He did not compare Libya's civil war to violence elsewhere, in terms of standards for U.S. intervention.
Implicitly, the latter question has already been answered, and Obama repeated some of those answers that can be gleaned, if not heard out loud. As Marc Ambinder relays, he gave some specific reasons for striking in Libya -- the credibility of the U.N., Libya's geographical situation -- that tell us why Libya, and not Yemen. He said a massacre in Libya would have threatened the U.S., a slight nod to the War Powers Resolution.
Obama did not deliver those points as answers to criticism. He did not acknowledge the questions being raised and offer up his explanations as response.
The answers were implicit, not explicit, which may be a difference of style. But it's important to remember that rhetorical style has a lot to do with what people take away.