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Obama's UK Speech Paves Path Forward - But What About Libya?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - 01:33 PM

Listening to President Obama's address to the British Parliament, you wouldn't think our war in Libya is a very big deal. Its first mention is two-thirds of the way through the speech, the discussion of it lasts a single paragraph, and it is called an "action," "crackdown" and effort to ensure "the people of Libya are protected." Hardly a war at all

The president had to acknowledge the Libya "action" somehow, but truth be told, it didn't fit into the vision of his speech. It had to be sidelined as much as possible to allow the rest of the address to achieve a different purpose: An elevated vision of international collaboration and democratic leadership, a toast to the progressive arc of history and a call to face serious challenges that know no national borders.

That narrative is an engaging one. Obama established the long democratic histories of both countries, and by acknowledging past shortcomings and rivalries, he painted a picture of historical progress that brought prosperity to our nations and holds out hope for emerging markets and nations around the world.

It's exciting to remember that the country we twice warred against is our close ally, and to list the foes we've vanquished together. It is equally important to name the challenges we need to face - global warming, global poverty, the threat of nuclear proliferation, the need to strengthen young democracies.

It was easy to hate Hitler. It can be harder to commit a country to the work of lifting countless millions out of poverty. Yet that is the type of challenge that requires the focus and effort that only comes from many nations working in concert. What we've been able to do - as allies in World War II and later as NATO - shows that we can take on problems bigger than any one country to provide for common security.

President Obama called for that type of collaboration, basing it in our shared history. He effectively connected the domestic needs each country faces with the international efforts they need to collectively tackle - a necessary move to engage his audience back home. He made clear that the U.S. and England need to deepen relationships with larger economies entering the global landscape. Yet he still asserted a role for both to be leaders, not just spectators, to the next chapter of history.

All very hopeful, inclusive, forward-looking, full of promise and prosperity. Thus, a really tough speech to include Libya.

It's not clear that Libya is a threat of the sort the president described when talking about the role of NATO. While praising democratic principles in the U.S., UK and in the movements through the Middle East and North Africa, the president emphasized laws, which are being broken by our current incursion, and judiciousness, which has been cast aside in this prolonged action.

The Libya situation doesn't fit into a vision of peace and prosperity, of focusing on security threats, of setting our targets on less tangible - but more dangerous - villains such as climate change. So the president pretty much left it out… and then raced on to talk about the diversity and inclusion of our two nations. A fair point, to be sure, but one that needs to be shouted more loudly every time we receive word of a civilian death in a drone attack in a far-away place.

President Obama, as always, gave a great speech, filled with humor and craft and a sense of purpose. However, as a great speech-maker, he knew that Libya just didn't fit into the story he was telling.

Unfortunately, that's not just a rhetorical nuisance. If the Libya war is worth fighting, the American people need to be told the real goals and true costs. And if it isn't worth telling that story, then maybe it's the policy-makers and generals, not just the speech-writers, who need to change the script.

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."

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Comments [1]

Stephen

There is a time and place for everything. This meeting was the time and place to promote positive issues. That does not mean the Libyan issues are not important, but they have received much attention in the past and will be receiving more in the future. Right now it is necessary to highlight "the good things" so they do not get lost within the "not so good things". The items mentioned (and the ones down-played) were very appropriate.

May. 25 2011 04:06 PM

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