Obama’s Libya Speech: America’s “Unique Role” in the World

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I’ll have a longer analysis of Barack Obama’s speech about Libya later tonight. But my thumbnail take is that Obama delivered a thoughtful speech, one in the tradition of the Washington foreign policy establishment, which managed to offer both an unexpectedly ambitious vision for America’s global role–but also a frustrating lack of clarity on the road ahead in Libya.

The core of the speech was an explanation for America’s Libyan intervention, which Obama explained as a matter of America’s “interests and values”–namely, a combination of saving lives, asserting the legitimacy of the United Nations, and preventing the Arab Spring from a dark twist.

But Obama also offered a grander vision of America’s leadership role in the world, and the circumstances that should compel America to act abroad. “For generations,” Obama said, “the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom.” Tonight it was clear that he does not see the U.S. as an enervated power that must step back from its global responsibilities, and that in those situations where America has the logistical, political and moral basis for coming to the rescue, it should.

Obama left plenty of other questions unanswered, however. He said, as he has before, that the U.S. will move into a supporting role in NATO’s civilian-protection mission even as we continue to seek the ouster of Gaddafi through non-military means. Yet he offered little sense of how long it might take to dislodge the tyrant, whether we’re willing to push him harder (for instance, by possibly supplying arms to the Libyan rebels) and how America would respond should Libya collapse into an Iraq-like state of violent anarchy. Of course, Obama himself may not know the answers to those questions–which is what has critics of his Libya policy nervous. But in place of those uncertainties, Obama did offer something like a larger doctrine. About which more later.