That, it seems to me, was the core message of the president's speech on Libya. America is simply incapable of watching a slaughter take place - anywhere in the world - and not move to do what we can to prevent it. It is against our nature to let evil triumph in such a fashion. The Libyan example was particularly vital because a rare constellation of forces came together to make turning away even harder: European and Arab support for preventing mass murder; UN permission; America's "unique" capabilities; and an imminent massacre in Benghazi.
Obama the Niebuhrian put the moral in realism. Yes, we could not do this everywhere all the time; but we could do this when we did; and that was good enough. There was some sleight of hand here. Citing the UN Resolution as an external reason for war - when the US lobbied hard for it - was a touch too neat. But essentially Obama was challenging those of us who opposed this decision to ask ourselves: well, what would you do? If the US had insisted on looking away, America would have seemed morally callous, even compared with the French. The mass graves of Benghazi would take their place alongside the horrors of Srebrenica. And the impact on Arab opinion, especially on the younger generation that is so key to the future, would be fatal to America's long term interests.
I do not know whether the last is actually the case, or whether most young Arabs are understandably focused on the regimes they labor under rather than the murderous nutter in the North African desert. But secretary of state Clinton was in the region at the time and believed otherwise. And, yes, one appreciates that doing nothing represented a choice as well as doing something. And it too would have had unknowable consequences.
Was I persuaded? Not completely. The major objection - what happens now? - was not answered affirmatively by the president. It was answered negatively: there would be no military effort at regime change, as in Iraq; NATO, not the US, would soon be leading the mission; and, er, it may last a while. It is way too soon to celebrate a new model of international cooperation; but it seems striking to me that the rationale Obama invoked was very much GHW Bush in Kuwait rather than GW Bush in Iraq. That left Saddam in power for more than a decade. And yet Obama spoke as if Qaddafi's days were obviously numbered. I sure hope they are.
It wasn't Obama's finest oratory; but it was a very careful threading of a very small needle. That requires steady hands and calmer nerves than I possess. But this president emerges once again as a consolidator and adjuster of the past, not a revolutionary force for the future. And one hopes that the notion that he is not a subscriber to American exceptionalism is no longer seriously entertained.
He clearly believes in that exceptionalism - and now will live with its onerous responsibilities.
(Photo: Dennis Brack/Pool/Getty.)