Obama and Libya: The Most Presidential Thing

President Barack Obama

An American President made the choice to take deadly action in Libya - then delivered sober and moving remarks about that decision. He didn't bask in American triumphalism or gloat about our military strength. In a measured tone, he expressed sorrow for the costs of his decision. He lamented the deaths of innocent civilians who are the "collateral damage" of American bombing. He referred to it as "the least presidential thing" he could do.

That speech was not the one President Obama gave last night; it was instead from the mouth of President Andrew Shepard:

President Shepard is a creation of Aaron Sorkin, portrayed by Michael Douglas, in the film "The American President," so his fictional task was much easier than that of our real-life president, who also made the decision to begin a military action (very carefully not called a "war") in Libya and also had to explain his decision. Our president, though, wasn't speaking to camera in Hollywood sound studio, but to a complicated audience: Critics from the Left and the Right, protesters and leaders halfway around the world, and an American public uncertain about what we were doing in Libya and how our leader made the decisions he did.

He expressed more American exceptionalism than his fictional counterpart, speaking of America's "unique ability," and our role for generations as a leader in pursuing global security and human freedom. He talked of the costs to America in any military operation, but glossed over the civilian costs in Libya, instead emphasizing that the Libyan people sought our aid. And ultimately, though President Obama may be as deft with words as Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin, he didn't inspire in last night's address. Instead, he explained.

Like the lawyer he was trained as, he laid out a case; and like the professor he once was, he took a step back to a broader discussion of how and when we should use force. In this address, he made an articulate, credible argument for why we go to war - to protect our national security or, more pressing in this case, to avert humanitarian disaster. Perhaps more critically, he laid out how we go to war - that we had an international mandate, broad coalition, support from Arab, a plea from the Libyan people and a plan for no American troops on the ground. This approach was meant to distinguish his approach from that of his predecessor and this war from the two he inherited. His explanation acknowledged that we will respond to every threat and international incident differently, but he offered the principles that he considers when deciding to use force. It was a thoughtful, strong and valuable explanation.

And it should be the beginning, not the end, of the national conversation.

The president asserted that he had consulted with leadership of both parties in Congress before taking military action. However, he did not engage the American people in a dialogue about the rationale and costs of war. It's easy to see why he might have wanted fewer voices in the room - he was being attacked by some for not taking action sooner and by others for moving too quickly. The difference wasn't as simple as Left/Right or Democrat/Republican. As described in the New York Times, there are Republicans who think the President moved too slowly and others who think he shouldn't have moved at all. With that cacophony of opinion, Obama may have wished for the Bush-Cheney-esque resolve to ignore all the voices around him and move forward on his own.

That said, the president and his team did not "go it alone." They sought and attained international support, meaningful military collaboration and the partnership of Arab states. One country they didn't court as assiduously, though, was their own.

Many observers have described candidate Barack Obama as a Rorschach test: We each interpreted his candidacy through our own hopes and fears. There are many who thought of him as devoutly anti-war, ignoring his repeated description of Afghanistan as the good war. Others thought he was prepared to be a Clinton-esque liberal interventionist, though he had risen to the Senate decrying our intervention in Iraq. In short, we weren't sure what his approach to foreign policy would be.

As president, it hasn't been clearer. His far-reaching address in Cairo in 2009, calling on a new chapter with the Middle East, revealed a greater sense of diplomacy than his predecessor. He has been more committed to multi-lateral efforts, such as his drive to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. Yet he also increased our forces in our ill-fated endeavor in Afghanistan.

Last night's address took a good step toward explaining our president's approach - but that shouldn't be the end of the discussion. That should have been the speech that prompted our debate about the use of force before we started a new military action, not afterward. But now we have the chance to continue that conversation.

There will be unlikely allies in a national discussion: Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul will find themselves agreeing, while John Kerry and John McCain might stand together on the other side of the debate. That could be healthy if it sparks the two parties, our political leadership and the 2012 candidates to define the role and limits of U.S. force.

President Obama delivered a good speech at the wrong time. Now, though, is the right time to hold him to his commitment - to work with international partners in a limited way, then to give the Libyan people the room to decide their own fortune. If he remains committed to those principles, then last night's address will be more than just another good speech. And if he pursues a real conversation with his constituents about how we, as a country, decide to go to war, then that - to turn a phrase from President Andrew Shepard - would be the most presidential thing he could do.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."