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.