WASHINGTON — President Obama, in defending military strikes in Libya, relied heavily on a humanitarian argument in his Monday night speech: faced with Moammar Gadhafi’s threats to slaughter his own people, America had “responsibilities to our fellow human beings” to act. To do nothing, Obama told the nation, would “have been a betrayal of who we are.”
What is important, said Obama, is that the U.S. is not a nation to “turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And, as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
Such is a definition, then, of an Obama Doctrine of how the nation acts under his presidency, even as U.S. soldiers are engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. And even as Congress — some members on both sides of the aisle — believe Obama merely notified them of his intentions to attack Libya — not the consultation he claimed on Monday. Obama’s team successfully lobbied the U.N. and NATO to pull together a strong international response; the administration felt no similar sense of urgency in explaining its actions to Congress.
I’m sure the 27-minute speech will not silence Obama critics, but it may apply some brakes as Congress returns this week to grapple with the costs, risks, and rationale for getting involved in Libya while not intervening in the opposition movements of other Middle East nations during this extraordinary history-in-the-making revolutionary period.
Simply put, Obama does not want a massacre to happen on his watch. President Clinton has regrets to this day not using U.S. force to stop genocidal murders in Rwanda in 1994 and, by extension, so does Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The world stood by, just as it did during the Nazi Holocaust.
As for taking action against Libya, Obama laid out the case that the U.S. involvement will be limited and that toppling Gaddafi — regime change — is not part of the military mission.
But it was a mission of necessity, of that Obama was certain. “We have intervened to stop a massacre.” He’s been long tutored on the topic. As a U.S. senator from Illinois, he met Samantha Power, who in 2003 won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Impressed with each other, Power took leave from her human rights work at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to join Obama’s Illinois Senate office for parts of 2005 and 2006. In the Obama White House, Power is Senior Director and Special Assistant for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights.