WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sent a signal to the country and the world Monday night about his decision to attack Libya: There is no "Obama doctrine" here.
Obama used his evening speech to assure skeptical Americans that he was forced to act by a madman in unique circumstances, that the U.S. role and risk would be limited, and that there is no unifying set of principles behind the Libya campaign that would guide the U.S. in other countries with similar problems.
Throughout, Obama demonstrated how the lack of a clear, simple doctrine has left many Americans cool to the U.S. military action and skeptical about whether the president and his allies have clear goals. He tried to explain the seemingly conflicting policies that, a) it's in America's interest to press Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to give up power, but, b) it's not worth the risk to use U.S. military power to do it. The military mission is only to protect civilians, he said.
"I know," Obama said, "that some Americans continue to have questions about our efforts in Libya."
For Obama, the evening speech was his first chance to talk directly to the American people from American soil since the U.S. started bombing Libya on March 19. He was in Latin America when the airstrikes started, and he spoke briefly that day from Brazil.
Upon returning to the U.S. five days later, he found the country cool to the idea of another U.S. military action — the fourth in a Muslim country after Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
Just 39 percent of Americans think Obama has clear goals in Libya, while 50 percent think he doesn't, according to a new poll released Monday by the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
At the same time, just 47 percent of Americans support the U.S. airstrikes, while 36 percent don't, and 17 percent didn't know.
The Gallup Poll found similar results, the lowest level of initial support for a U.S. military action in at least three decades, and the first time in 10 interventions dating to the 1983 invasion of Grenada that a majority of Americans didn't support the action at the onset.
Obama also faced people at home and abroad eager to learn if he's committing the country to a new level of commitment to intervene against tyranny as anti-government demonstrations spread through North Africa and the Middle East.
He said he isn't.
First, he said, he felt compelled to stop Gadhafi from the imminent slaughter of his own people. Mindful of how former President Bill Clinton failed to act to stop genocide in Rwanda, Obama said he wouldn't wait.
"Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different," he said. "And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."
Second, he said the U.S. alone had the ability to help launch the airstrikes — but that it would step back quickly now, turning leadership over to NATO. Also, while he asserted again that it's in U.S. interests for Gadhafi to leave, he said it would be wrong to expand the current military mission to force the dictator out.
"If we tried to overthrow Gadhafi by force, our coalition would splinter," he said, in a line reminiscent of President George H.W. Bush's explanation of why he stopped short of driving Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next."
That, Obama said, could turn Libya into an expensive long-term commitment. "We went down that road in Iraq," he said. "Regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."
He also insisted that Libya was unique, not the vanguard of a new policy.
"In this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale," he said. "We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gadhafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground."
Meaning: The fact that the U.S. acted to stop Gadhafi from killing more of his own people doesn't mean that the U.S. will act to stop dictators elsewhere doing the same.
Hours before Obama spoke, White House aides said the president's National Security Council hasn't even mentioned the possibility of military action in Syria. "There has not been any discussion of that," said Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said Monday.
They also said that anti-government demonstrators shouldn't expect U.S. military help just because the U.S. acted in Libya.
"We don't get very hung up on this question of precedent," McDonough said. "Libya was unique. And insofar as we believe it's unique, we believe it doesn't set a precedent that should create any expectations in that regard."
Ultimately, Obama said, his actions in Libya are a case study in pragmatism, not a doctrine. It depends on circumstances, he said.
"It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs," he said. "But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right."
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