There was one aspect of Barack Obama’s Big Speech on Libya last night that was particularly curious: for a
President who is trying to downplay American involvement in this conflict, he sure went in for good bit of self-aggrandisement. The amount of references to his and his government’s
"leadership" — as in, "At my direction, America led an effort with our allies at the United Nations Security Council to pass an historic Resolution" — was really
quite striking, at least to these ears. I suppose it’s all about mollifying those voices who argue that the US Pres hasn’t done enough, quickly enough. But it’s hardly going to endear him to some
of his more proactive partners in this fight.
Apart from that, it genuinely was about downplaying and qualifying American involvement in Libya. The phrase "costs and risks" appeared about half-a-dozen times; a drumbeat which set the
mood of the speech. And Iraq was mentioned on several occasions, mostly in the context of "This will not be another…". Obama was at pains to emphasise that humanitarian concern,
and a "unique" confluence of circumstances, had driven American warships and planes towards Libyan territory.
When it came to the specifics, Obama clarified some of the noises that he had made previously — but was still not entirely clear. On Gaddafi, for instance, he was adamant that the dictator
ought not remain in power. But he was equally adamant that he should not be toppled by force. Or as Obama put it, "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a
mistake." The most he could offer was that, "I, along with many other world leaders … will actively pursue [Gaddafi’s removal] through non-military means."
Non-military means; that was another theme of the speech. Not only has the US handed overall leadership of the mission to Nato, but it will — Obama suggested — fade into the background
almost completely. "Going forward," he said, "the United States will play a supporting role, including intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue assistance, and
capabilities to jam regime communications." He referred to the "bulk" of the American military effort "ratchet[ing] down". If anything, this speech sounded more like one of
withdrawal than you might normally expect, ten days into an operation.
Many will paint contrasts with the speeches of George Bush, and, indeed, Obama made some of those contrasts explicit himself. There is one that is worth dwelling on. Apart from a single line on
Iran, Obama had no pejoratives for anyone outside Libya. There was no mention of Syria. There was no Yemen. There was no Bahrain. There was, in other words, no Axis of Evil style checklist. This
was, after all, a speech to temper expectations, not inflame them.