Obama’s Speech and our “Interests” in Libya

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A White House briefing on Libya today, featuring deputy national security advisor Denis McDonough, shed little new light on the ongoing kinetic military operation in North Africa. And, disappointingly, neither McDonough nor White House press secretary Jay Carney would give a hint about the substance of President Obama’s speech this evening. It remains unclear whether this will be a speech offering some kind of a grand vision, or a mere reiteration of Obama’s Saturday radio address outlining his reasons for taking on the Ghaddafi regime.

But McDonough did say something that offers a useful frame for the president’s remarks tonight. Here here is responding to a reporter’s question about what broader precedent the U.S. may be setting with its action:

[T]he idea that since we intervened — [that] since we had led an international coalition to shape the environment for an intervention in Libya means that we have to intervene everywhere else just belies the fact that we don’t intervene based on precedent or based on a certain set of consistency guidelines but rather so that we can advance our interests. And each of those interests is going to be unique in each instance. [emphasis added]

But in Libya, our interests remain hard to define. (Defense Secretary Robert Gates grappled with this yesterday.) The original  rationale for intervening in Libya, after all, was to protect innocent civilian lives. Neither the Arab League nor United Nations made any mention in their resolutions about American interests. It may be that saving lives is in itself an American interest. But that’s not what the Obama team is arguing here either. As McDonough seemed to be arguing, there’s a more complex formula at work which incorporates protecting innocent life–but also involves countless other variables including regional stability, Arab world opinion (and maybe a dash of vengeance: McDonough reminded the press that Gaddafi was “behind an attack on American citizens” in the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing.)

But it should be clear by now that we’re acting for something more than just saving Libyan lives. Even if we did initially fire our Tomahawks to save Benghazi’s innocents, that rationale now amounts to a foot in the door for something more complicated, more nebulous, and much harder to explain. That will be the president’s challenge tonight: Defining America’s interests in a way that’s clear, candid, and acceptable both here at home and to the wider world.

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