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03.28.11

Obama's Case for Humanitarian War

The president’s Libya speech set out his case for humanitarian war—and differentiated his vision from that of George W. Bush, whose ghost hung over the address.

The president’s Libya speech set out his case for humanitarian war—and differentiated his vision from that of George W. Bush, whose ghost hung over the address. Plus, more Obama speech reaction.

“I refuse to wait for images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”  

With that statement, staring straight at the camera, President Obama tried to make a case for humanitarian war: the limited, U.S.-led, multilateral intervention in Libya.  

But as he weaved his familiar rhetorical path between the extremes—in this case neo-isolationist liberals and neoconservative regime-changers—Obama was on awkward footing trying to explain how insisting that “Gaddafi must go” did not signify a policy of regime change.   


'I Refuse to Wait for Slaughter and Mass Graves'

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The ghost of George W. Bush hung over the speech, with Obama singling out a ground war in Iraq as an explicit example of what the U.S. will not do under his watch. By contrast, Gaddafi’s directive to take down Pam Am Flight 103 was only implied as evidence of his evil. The “good war” in Bosnia was invoked to show how speedily the U.S. and its allies intervened this time by comparison, attempting to answer critics who accused him of delays in intervention and addressing the nation.

One vision is consistent between Obama and Bush, and it might also serve as the speech’s most enduring line: “Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.”

But two key questions remained unanswered after the 30-minute speech: Which vital national interest was violated and what is the definition of success? The president made it clear that the U.S. had ceded military control to our NATO allies going forward, and he cautioned that “this change will make the world more complicated for a time”—the balance-of-power realpolitik can take a back seat. But he was convincing in locating Libya at the center of the North African uprisings. He also met the difficult task of proving a negative, namely the lessons that other dictators would have taken about the wisdom of wholesale slaughter without this international intervention. But critics can still credibly contend that this is an a la carte intervention.

More Daily Beast writers on Obama’s Libya speech

In the end, the difference between the freedom agendas of Bush and Obama might be boiled down to unilateralism versus multilateralism. Obama clearly stated “the United States will not be able to dictate the pace or scope of change... but we can make a difference.” In this worldview, the U.S. can nudge history in our desired direction—freedom and democracy—but not directly impose it. It must ultimately be earned and owned by the local countrymen. Obama’s is a worldview deeply influenced by the lessons of Iraq, essentially little “c” conservative in its reluctance to squander American blood or treasure while risking an anti-American backlash. But one vision is consistent, and it might also serve as the speech’s most enduring line: “Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.”

John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.