Obama’s Libya Speech: A Post-Iraq Version of Containment

Like the military intervention in Libya itself, President Barack Obama’s speech last night was probably too little, too late to have a decisive impact on the debate. It offered nothing in the way of a neat doctrine or clear-cut objectives to justify the use of force, meaning that critics are unlikely to be swayed. But in some ways, it was probably more honest than most people were expecting: The decision to intervene was essentially a gut call, long on tactics and short on strategy, whose wisdom will be determined by the outcome on the ground.

What the speech did accomplish, however, is to reset the criteria by which that outcome will be judged. In this, Obama was making up for his initial mistake of letting the rhetoric of regime change outstrip his willingness to use force to achieve it. By distinguishing the limited military objectives from the long-term political goal, Obama successfully realigned the two arms of policy. This, then, is the post-Iraq version of Cold War containment: We’re willing to live with leaders we don’t approve of, but not with behavior we don’t approve of. We’ll use politics to address the former and multilateral military force to address the latter.

There are caveats, of course, and the part of the speech that articulated them hewed pretty closely to the “When We Can” standard I defended last week. But Obama also offered a compelling “Where We Must” corollary to respond to those who, like Daniel Larison, continue to narrowly define American interests, and those who, like Andrew Exum, worry that we can no longer afford to assume even Obama’s limited version of “bear any burden.”

The problem with identifying America’s interests as if it were any other nation is that, for now, America has greater responsibilities than any other nation. And the problem with expressing the opportunity costs of meeting those responsibilities exclusively in dollar terms is that it ignores the monetary privileges that accrue from a global security role. If the U.S. is immune to the debt crises and market-imposed austerity cures currently racking Europe, it is in part because of its willingness to underwrite the security and stability of the global order.

Clearly, an overly broad definition of interests combined with what amounts to a free hand to finance securing them runs the risk of luring us into overreach. Indeed, as Obama pointedly stated, we’ve been down that road in Iraq, and he has no intention of making that mistake a second time. In fact, on close inspection, “where we can” is actually a pretty short list, even for the global hegemon.

But in the long run, if it’s successful, the current wave of popular empowerment in the Middle East will reduce our security commitments there, not expand them, and allow us to better transition into a global order where we play a more limited security role and other powers, whether European or Asian, play a greater one. That is worth supporting and, in the case of Libya, fighting for.

More World Politics Review