Obama speech: still more questions than answers

If Ronald Reagan was the great communicator, Barack Obama is the great synthesizer. In an artfully designed presentation, he pulled together all the disparate themes that have been raised in the last three weeks regarding our Libyan involvement and wove them into a (superficially) coherent tapestry of history, policy, philosophy, critical analysis and doctrine. It was a performance worthy of the law school professor that he was. But, as with a full-course dinner of Chinese food, an hour later you’re hungry and looking for more.

President Obama, as anticipated, defended the necessity of the Libyan action as a way of halting brutal atrocities and the potential flow of refugees into other, new and fragile regimes in the region. Now, he said, the United States, having halted Gaddafi’s deadly advance, will turn over responsibility to NATO and other allies. We, however, will continue to provide support, especially in intelligence, logistics, “humanitarian assistance” and communications. But, while it’s comforting to think that the United States has, with international collaboration, “done what we said we’d do,” we’re left with many serious, nagging questions for which the President didn’t provide answers. All the “what if’s.”

As Robert D. Kaplan wrote last weekend in the Wall St. Journal,  the Middle East crisis has just begun.

The President has described our “unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for freedom.” But do freedom and democracy mean the same things to the Libyan opposition coalition as they do for us? Will the material assistance we provide the coalition end up being used against us?

He said we are safeguarding $33 billion of Libyan frozen assets to help rebuild a system of government. How heavily involved will we be? What long-term commitments is he actually making to build a replacement government? How far does one go in taking sides in a civil war? The UN resolution said one thing. The Canadian in charge of the NATO mission said another.

The President said we can’t police the world. We can’t use our military wherever repression occurs. But, he said, that can’t be an argument for never acting. With the Libyan people facing the prospect of atrocities on an enormous scale, he argued, not to take action at this time would be “a betrayal of who we are.”

So what happens if there’s a similar uprising in Iran, more of a threat to regional stability than Libya? What about Yemen, which, located on the Gulf of Aden, is much more crucial to American interests than Libya? And what would our interest be in the democratization of Saudi Arabia, where we are so in bed with the monarchy and  so dependent on them for oil?

With so many Middle East nations in turmoil, Kaplan says we “must avoid entanglements and stay out of the domestic affairs of the region.” And, oh, by the way, he also points out that “every time we intervene somewhere, it quickens the pace at which China, whose leaders relish obscurity in international affairs, closes the gap with us.”

The speech was comprehensive and had a lot of feel-good rhetoric. “Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.” And the President asserted that we aren’t going down the road toward regime change in Libya which, he reminded us, is what got us into trouble in Iraq. But there’s an inherent contradiction here. He may say he looks to the future “with confidence and hope,” but there are a lot of unanswered questions, the answers to which may well end us up in a lot of trouble.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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