In the end Barack Obama's speech on Libya will not matter very much. If things go well, Gaddafi leaves or is made to leave, and the aftermath isn't too bloody, the operation will be deemed a success, and Obama will get much of the credit. Most of the issues now exercising Washington--lack of consultation with Congress, the initial hesitation, the subsequent lack of clarity about goals, the cost, the question of consistency (if Libya, why not Syria?)--all of this will evaporate. If it goes wrong, Obama will get much of the blame, and the complaints will suddenly be potent. The speech was just all right. It wasn't commanding or inspiring enough to move public opinion and have any bearing on the outcome.
Understanding better than anyone that results are all that count, Obama audaciously tried to say that the US part of the intervention is already mostly over and should be deemed a success.
[T]onight, I can report that we have stopped Qaddafi's deadly advance...
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...
[W]e've accomplished these objectives consistent with the pledge that I made to the American people at the outset of our military operations...
So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: The United States of America has done what we said we would do.
The threatened humanitarian crisis has been averted, America's work is largely done, and the allies can probably handle the rest. Massacre prevented. Mission accomplished (though one must never use that phrase).
Worth a try, but nobody is buying it yet.
The speech did, I think, give a pretty clear and straightforward account of the administration's reasoning. Vital security interests of the sort that would justify unilateral action were not at stake, Obama said. He insisted that the US has a right (and its government a duty) to act unilaterally if need be on those occasions. But, he went on, this was not to say that the US had no stake in the Libyan struggle, or to deny that purely humanitarian demands carry weight in themselves. Having measured the force of these values and less-than-vital interests against the US capacity (its "unique capabilities") to intervene productively, he thought it was right, in concert with others, to take carefully limited action.
We will see how productive the intervention proves to be, but this way of approaching the decision does make sense. If you doubt it, don't just list the policy's all too obvious dangers: test it against the alternatives--something I have not seen Obama's critics do. One option would have been to do nothing. In other words, abstain with China and Russia on the UNSC resolution. What a splendid message to the world that would have sent. Or maybe vote for the resolution, then commit no resources to enforcing it--the usual European approach to global leadership. Thankfully, the US is better than that. Alternatively, go all in, make regime change the goal, and target Gaddafi--but now without international backing. That would have been a heavier burden and an even bigger gamble. The course of action Obama chose is risky, to be sure, but when you think them through the alternatives look worse.