WASHINGTON — Someone should introduce the Barack Obama who addressed the nation Monday on Libya to the Barack Obama who has been dancing around the edge of the budget fight.
In his Libya speech, Obama was clear, forceful and principled. Yes, there were some ambiguities but these were dictated by a genuinely uncertain situation on the ground, not by muddled thinking. The president made the case for a foreign policy rooted in morality yet also alive to the difficulties of acting wisely in an imperfect world that does not bend easily to one man’s or one country’s will.
On the budget, by contrast, it’s hard to know what the president’s bottom line is, what deals he would regard as reasonable, or when he will even join the fray.
The White House is so determined to keep the president antiseptically distant from the untidy wrangling on the budget that it will not even allow its allies in Congress cite the administration’s own analyses of how harmful some of the Republican cuts would be. They can use the facts, but not let on that the administration put them together. What’s up with this?
Obama was not afraid to take risks on Libya, including the hazard of criticism from all sides for his resolute refusal to lay out an all-encompassing policy toward the various uprisings in the Middle East. It’s amusing to watch us journalists assume the mantle of medieval scholastics as we parse his every word in search of an “Obama Doctrine.”
But the last thing the United States needs is a doctrinaire approach to a series of conflicts that affect our interests in different ways and in which we have very different capacities to influence the outcomes. When “history is on the move,” as Obama put it nicely, rigid policy frameworks can be dangerous.
What Obama did offer was an exceptionally honest and rigorous defense of humanitarian intervention.
“It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs,” he said. “And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence.”
He was right to keep using that word “particular,” and also right to argue that we should not have acted unilaterally. The United States will better maintain its power and influence by expanding the ways in which it can work in concert with like-minded nations.
Putting aside the whatever-Obama-does-must-be-wrong wing of the Republican Party, there are two legitimate lines of criticism of his Libya policy.
One is the realist’s view that the U.S. should not have intervened because we are already overcommitted and don’t even know who the rebels are. The other is that having declared that Moammar Gaddafi must go, we need to go all the way, arm the rebels and do whatever else is needed to ensure their victory.
Realists (and, for that matter, pacifists) won’t be moved by Obama’s humanitarian case, but I suspect many Americans were persuaded that the U.S. and its allies could not stand by facing “the prospect of violence on a horrific scale.” As for giving more help to the rebels, it may come to that. But after our experience in Iraq, I’d prefer a president who is wary of the costs of a military mission devoted to regime change and doesn’t lightly brush aside the risks of a quagmire.
Perhaps Obama has the same fear of quagmires when it comes to the budget fight, but this is not a battle he can avoid. So far, he has been more of a pundit or a distant judge, rendering verdicts from afar on the behavior of the various parties. “Both sides are going to have to sit down and compromise on prudent cuts,” he said a few weeks ago. Well, yes, but isn’t he on a side here? He talks periodically about his priorities but he hasn’t put any muscle behind those who are actually trying to defend them in the brawl that’s raging at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
In his speech on Monday, the president spoke of our obligation “to live the values that we hold so dear.” He’s done a decent job of that in Libya. He needs to do the same closer to home.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com. (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group