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03.28.11

A Late but Lucky Obama Speech

The president refused to be rushed into giving a speech on Libya, though the country needed to hear from him earlier. But Monday night was a fortuitous moment for such an address, says Eleanor Clift.

The president refused to be rushed into giving a speech on Libya, though the country needed to hear from him earlier. But Monday night was a fortuitous moment for such an address, says Eleanor Clift. Plus, more Obama speech reaction.

Maybe President Obama should have given this speech earlier, before all the doubts took hold about whether America should or shouldn’t intervene in Libya. But he refused to be hurried. It’s a hallmark of his leadership, for good or for ill. And he got lucky because Monday night was an optimal moment for the emerging Obama Doctrine, with the handoff to NATO complete and the momentum on the ground shifting in favor of the rebels.

The president began with a recitation of how he became drawn into the Libyan conflict, step by step, and it too reflected his careful decision-making—never rash, always cautious. He hasn’t gotten much credit for stopping what he called “Gaddafi’s deadly advance,” and that must frustrate him. Strip away all the rhetoric about U.S. interests and this was principally a humanitarian mission, and he made the case that as president he could not stand by and let Muammar Gaddafi inflict his reign of terror on the 700,000 civilians in Benghazi.

But that part of the mission is essentially over, and Obama’s greater task was to reconcile the successful air attacks with his stated goal that Gaddafi has lost legitimacy and must go. He did not back away from that goal, saying the world will be better off without Gaddafi, but said flatly that he would not pursue regime change through force. “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” he said.

Gaddafi will not be gone overnight. That means Obama is in for a lot more overwrought commentary about stalemate and lost American prestige.

There are other tools, he said, including the leverage that seizing Gaddafi’s $33 billion fortune can bring. Obama seems convinced that the pace of history will force Gaddafi from power but that he may not be gone overnight. That means Obama is in for a lot more overwrought commentary about stalemate and lost American prestige.

More Daily Beast writers on Obama’s Libya speech

He pointedly cast this speech as an update on the international effort America “led” in Libya, but his words were more about the limits of U.S. power. “We should not be afraid to act, but the burden of action should not be America’s alone,” he said. In a region shaken by generational and political upheaval, the president is trying to find his footing based on democratic principles and the reality of what is achievable. For an administration that has been behind the curve at building public support for almost anything it does, letting the country hear from the president when he puts U.S. troops in harm’s way is an elementary element of leadership. 

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek.