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Obama and American Power

Presidents and secretaries of state have not always come entirely clean in explaining why they were doing things, especially military actions. They tend to leave out key motives: Think of Ronald Reagan invading Grenada in 1982 to save medical students who unaccountably found themselves in danger; George H.W. Bush conjuring up Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait, but not mentioning Iraqi control of global oil; or George W. Bush invoking Saddam’s nuclear arsenal to justify an invasion of Iraq.

In justifying America’s armed intervention in Libya, President Barack Obama left some loose ends and unspoken subtexts on the teleprompter, but all in all, he came pretty close to giving an argument for intervention that had a lot to do with why he decided to send American warships and planes. He also contributed a few important distinctions to the development of a post-Cold War foreign policy—something that two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall still remains murky.

In his speech, Obama laid out two categories of situation that justify intervention. The first is when America and its allies and America’s “core interests” are threatened. In that case, the president would “never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally.” It is not clear what our “core” (as opposed to “peripheral”?) interests are, but generally what Obama seems to be referring to is either a direct military attack on us or our allies, or actions that immediately threaten our military and economic security. In that case, he would order our forces into action immediately.

The second category consists of cases “when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are.” This is itself a tricky formulation because it attempts to combine idealism and realism through the use of the word “and.” He explains that:

Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security—responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America's problems alone, but they are important to us, and they are problems worth solving.

Threaten our common humanity? This could apply to any number of regimes that violate human rights, but that we don’t attempt to overthrow or hobble with a no-fly zone. But the other things that Obama mentioned (except for natural disasters, which have nothing to do with the case at hand) are matters that threaten our “interests.” Regional insecurity in nuclear-armed South Asia, for instance, could have repercussions that could affect Americans as well as Indians or Pakistanis. And—this bears upon one of the missing subtexts—any instability in the Middle East could threaten the “flow of commerce” by driving up the price of oil. So I think that what Obama is laying out was not simply a justification for what is now called “humanitarian” intervention, but for instances where what is threatened are values and interests. And that is certainly the case in Libya.

What was primarily missing from Obama’s speech was a specific discussion of what our “interests” are in Libya. He does lay out one kind of “strategic interest. “ “A massacre,” he warned, “would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful—yet fragile—transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.” That does refer to threats to regional stability, but what is missing in addition to this is some mention of why this region if so important to us, namely that North Africa and the Middle East proper are the center of oil production in the world.

Oil matters to the flow of commerce, and it doesn’t matter who buys it from whom. If you look at the price of oil, it has skyrocketed since the rebellion in Libya began, and it will probably continue to rise, or at least stay high, until there is some resolution in Libya. That matters to the world economy, especially in the midst of a slowdown, and it matters to the United States. High oil prices could cut short the current recovery. And if the recovery stalls globally, that could have enormous geopolitical implications—think of the 1930s. So there is a reason why the stability of North Africa and the Middle East is important to us. It’s a matter of values and interests.

But what should the United States do when its values and interests, but not its “core” interests are threatened? Obama suggests that in these instances, we should not act unilaterally but multilaterally. One reason, which has come up in administration discussions, but which he didn’t state explicitly in his speech has to do with the legacy of Western imperialism in the region. If the United States had acted on its own in Libya, that might have allowed Qaddafi and other American foes in the region to portray our intervention as another instance of neo-colonialism. That is why it was important to have the support of the United Nations and the Arab League.

The second reason has to do with “costs” and “risks.” Here, too, Obama was not specific, but he seems to be referring to the limits that America faces in trying to attend its “values and interests.” The U.S. can’t afford to do this alone. It’s not simply a matter of being a burden to the American economy. War becomes a preoccupation that clouds out other concerns. And as Woodrow Wilson warned in 1919 when he pleaded with Americans to embrace the idea of “collective security,” America can become a garrison state, as it did during the height of the Cold War. There was some justification then, but not now. I think Obama senses this danger, and it is one reason why he argued so strongly for a multilateral approach to these kind of interventions.

Obama made the speech in order to win public support for his policies. And the president’s opponents have been trumpeting Gallup’s finding that Obama’s action initially enjoyed less public support than any of the recent interventions. But the Gallup figures need interpreting. Yes, according to Gallup, only 47 percent of the public initially backed the action against Libya, but only 37 percent opposed it. That’s a greater margin of support that Bill Clinton enjoyed before sending the planes to bomb Serbia in 1999.

What’s different is that the Libyan intervention occurred much more quickly than the similar interventions in Kosovo or Haiti, so that many Americans had little knowledge of what was going on—16 percent told Gallup they had “no opinion.” That number will go down considerably after Obama’s speech, and support for his policy is likely to go up, partly because of rebel successes on the ground in Libya, but also because of the relative candor and clarity with which Obama laid out the case for intervening in Libya. Obama’s speech will probably not go down as a major foreign policy address comparable, say, to his Nobel Prize oration, but for my money, it went further than any of his previous efforts in developing a viable post-Cold War foreign policy.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.