"When our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act."

I heard the speech tonight while running.  My short reaction?  State Department: 1.  Department of Defense: 0.  I think it’s a speech that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and human rights advisor Samantha Power are very comfortable with.

I thought the speech presented a convincing narrative for the intervention in Libya and a solid articulation of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.  Do I love the prospect of another open-ended occupation of an Arab or Middle-Eastern country (or any other country, for that matter?)  Of course not.  But I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect an American president to restrict his foreign policy to stamping out the flaming bags of poop left on the doorstep by the previous administration.  And Obama was elected with more of a mandate for his foreign policy vision than any president since. . . John F. Kennedy?  (That’s my guess.  In the twentieth century, most Democratic presidents have been elected for their domestic policy agendas, with perhaps the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s re-election and Kennedy’s “missle gap” strategy.)

This was the peculiar genius and daring of the Bush/Cheney regime:  they were unafraid to use their power, consequences beyond re-election be damned.  They knew that it was a lot easier to start wars than to end them, and to tear apart cities and institutions than to rebuild them, so they always knew which side they wanted to be on.  (And they were also able judges of the Democrats and the media, whom they knew would be too wimpy and internally divided to mount a serious and principled opposition in the face of a full-throated cry for wars of vengeance.)

Of course, hindsight is an infinitely wise judge, and how the “Obama Doctrine” is regarded by history will all depend on its effectiveness.  If Libya collapses into a civil war among the rebels and drags Tunisia, Egypt, and the other struggling potential republics down with it, then it will be clearly and obviously a failure.  If the intervention in Libya provides the rebels with the military support they need to assemble a responsible governing coalition, and if they create a government based on an open society, then it will be judged a triumph of American leadership and the spread of democratic ideals around the globe.  I myself will be watching what happens to the women–the news coming out of Egypt is not good, but it’s still quite early in the history of the anti-Mubarak Revolution of 2011.  In terms that Americans might understand, it’s only 1781 or 1782, and the U.S. Constitution wasn’t ratified until the summer of 1789.

I am writing from the perspective as an American historian with some knowledge of how American presidents have handled foreign policy  decisions in the past.  I am not an African or Middle Eastern historian, nor am I an expert in U.S. foreign policy, so I welcome any and all perspectives that you all might have from your various fields of expertise.

0 thoughts on “"When our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act."

  1. Interesting post. I too am interested to see how things unfold for women in all of these revolutions and uprisings. I think, though, you might be a tad bit optimistic in thinking that a reference to the 1781 or 1782 as explanatory of the development of a system of governance is framed in “terms Americans might understand,” given the sad state of what so many Americans know of our own history (let alone anybody else’s history!). I’ll never forget a job I had in grad school grading standardized state high school social studies tests in which I was told that an essay question answer, even when factually incorrect on a point of U. S. history, was to be counted as correct if the factual error was one people commonly make!


  2. It was a very good speech, but If the intervention in Libya provides the rebels with the military support they need to assemble a responsible governing coalition, and if they create a government based on an open society sounds unrealistic. At best. When and where did any result like that ever happen?

    I would give Obama the benefit of the doubt if he weren’t insisting on severe austerity in the domestic budget. He has said that the U.S. has no money to invest in the transportation infrastructure, improving the environment, or welfare generally. Propping up Libyan rebels apparently outranks these interests.


  3. I still don’t understand what the expected outcome is, from the administration perspective. Or better, what will they do if Qadaffi stays in power?

    The speech was OK. I liked Rachel Maddow take on it last night. And as a non-American, I could have done without phrases like: “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different”. They just make me laugh, and bring the cynical out in me.


  4. Ambivalent and underinformed hawk here on this one. I think something had to be done, but the underlying analysis is unclear (I didn’t hear the speech last night). Gaddafi had to go, but I’m not sure who knows who the opposition is at this point. It’s already a civil war I’m sure. How it went from a no-fly zone that couldn’t be done to a tank killer program that is being done is mystifying. The worst days of Bosnia (1992-1995) boiled whatever was left of any residual, or at least reflexive, “post-Vietnam syndrome” out of me. But the various interventions before and since seem to have been pretty ad hoc, and any “doctrinal” level of coherence will have to be retro-imposed by historians, as usual.


  5. Well, Obama is afraid to use his power except in these kinds of ways.

    Objectives: put in someone we like better than we like Qaddafi.

    I really doubt we have any humanitarian goals at all.

    Also, leadership means entitlement, dominance, etc. when we use the term in these kinds of contexts.


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