Obama’s Muddled and Messy Message on Libya

by Derrick G. Jeter

In communication, especially big, serious, televised speeches by the President of the United States, everything communicates—the time and place of the address, the suit and tie he wears, the manner of approaching the podium, his hand gestures, his smile and eye contact or lack thereof, the tone of his voice, the pacing of his words, the words themselves, and how he exits the platform. Everything communicates.
We often think of speeches as spoken words only. But speeches also made from unspoken words, born from the union of verbal and non-verbal. And Monday evening’s Libya speech by the president was no exception.
The purposes of presidential addresses on really important topics like war and peace tend to seek clarification and persuasion—to clarify the administration’s policy and to persuade the American people and American allies that the administration’s policy is noble. I’m sure that was the Obama administration’s intentions Monday night.
But, the big speech on Libya communicated confusion. And confusion never persuades. The address was a mess on both the non-verbal and verbal fronts.
The non-verbal first. Since the modern inventions of mass communication devices like the radio and television every president since Franklin Roosevelt has addressed the nation about issues of war and peace sitting behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office. This is not mere show. The trappings of presidential power communicate sobriety, gravitas, and focus. Speeches of the most serious nature also air during prime time: 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. eastern. Obama’s speech on the conflict in Libya was behind a podium at the National Defense University at 7:30 p.m. eastern. Many news outlets didn’t even carry the speech. It’s curious why the administration chose this place and time because it tells us that our engagement in Libya isn’t that important—it doesn’t rise to the level of a White House address.
But the setting and timing of the speech are not the only non-verbal faux pas. The president is a youthful man and is often seen bounding down or up the stairs of Air Force Once. That’s fine when your boarding or exiting the plane or mounting the dais for a campaign rally, but not for a speech about armed conflict. Better to approach the podium with a confident stride and a serious demeanor than “hop” up on stage as if you were making an appearance on Oprah or The Tonight Show.
The last non-verbal gaff occurred at the close of the speech. After his concluding line, “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America,” [1] Obama should have immediately walked off the stage instead of lingering at the podium and thanking the audience for the polite applause. And then when exiting the hall, waving to the audience and shaking hand are inappropriate to the seriousness of the words just delivered.
Is this nit-picking? No, it’s not. Wordless communication is important and in many ways communicates more clearly than words. What the president said Monday night with his body belied what his said with his words. Is this a serious speech or a campaign speech? If all anyone saw of the speech was the president approaching the podium and exiting the hall they’d conclude the speech didn’t carry the weight of war.
Now, to the speech itself. In matters of armed conflict presidential addresses should be painfully clear—almost pedantic—but without giving away vital information to our enemies. This is a delicate dance to be sure, but to misstep is to leave the American public confused. And confusion doesn’t persuade.
Unfortunately for the American people, Obama and his speech writers were flat-footed Monday evening. There are many things to criticize in the speech, but overall the speech was vague, contradictory, and down right stupid in some places.
Six times the president spoke of America’s interests and values in regard to military action in Libya: “our interests and values,” “our national interests,” “our interests,” “strategic interests,” “our core interests,” and “our interests and our values.” Yet, he only gave the vaguest of notions of what those interests are:
There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security—responding to natural disasters, for example, or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintain the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.
Fair enough. But how, specifically, are America’s interests in danger in Libya? Without more specificity, phrases like “our interests and our values” come across as slogans rather than principles worth committing American blood to defend.
Vagueness was only one issue plaguing this speech. Another was stupidity. In some places the president just made downright dumb comments. Here are a few with commentary:
“I made it clear that Qaddafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead, and I said that he needed to step down from power.” [What does this mean? The man is a tyrant. Did he ever have the confidence of his people or only their fear? And in what way do tyrants have legitimacy to lead? When Qaddafi heard of president’s demand he step down, he laughed.]
Making the case that if America hadn’t stepped in and prevented “a massacre . . . the democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest from of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.” [This is why they are called dictators. They’ve already concluded that violence is the best means of holding onto power. Obama’s rhetoric here is tripe.]
Continuing his argument for the importance of preventing a massacre: “The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security.” [Is Obama kidding? Libya was a member on the U.N.’s Human Rights Council until they were kicked off in early March 2011. The U.N. has been nothing but empty words with a crippled credibility for years, and Libya’s placement on the Human Rights Council to begin with proves it.]
Finally, “history is not on Qaddafi’s side.” [The man has been in power for forty years—a pretty good track record against history—and may retain power after America and her coalition partners pack-up and go home. For all we know Qaddafi will still be in power when Obama is in his sunset, post-presidency years. The tyrant of Cuba (Castro) has seen many a president come and go since the 1960s.]
We need better than this—we deserve better than this. We at least deserve an intelligent speech.
Vagueness and stupidity, however, can be forgiven. Contradicting yourself in such an important speech cannot, especially when the contradiction concerns the goal and the mission of America’s involvement—two ideas vital in directing our military operations and in measuring success.
In one revealing passage Obama said: “while our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives, we continue to pursue the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to its people” (emphasis mine). Later the president asserted:
Now, just as there are those who have argued against intervention in Libya, there are others who have suggested that we broaden our military mission beyond the task of protecting the Libyan people, and do whatever it takes to bring down Qaddafi and usher in a new government.
Of course, there is no question that Libya—and the world—would be better off with Qaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake (emphasis mine).
The mistake, Obama argued, was that broadening the military goal to regime change would splinter our coalition and “put U.S. troops on the ground” which he had already promised he wouldn’t do. “To be blunt,” the president continued, “we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq’s future. But 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.”
On the surface this seems like a reasonable argument, but it’s not. As Senator, Obama opposed military action in Iraq—whether for regime change or not. Now he is for limited military action in Libya to protect the people, but not for regime change. However, he supports the goal of regime change, just not with military action. Perhaps we could summarize Obama’s position this way: I was against regime change before I was for regime change before I was against it.
This is not being cute with language; this is very serious business. But the president isn’t at all clear on the mission and goal of our Libyan engagement. How do we know if we’re protecting the people? What if the rebels fail in their mission to overthrow Qaddafi, how do we protect the people then? And if Qaddafi retains power wouldn’t he accelerate atrocities on his people? Will we support boots on the ground with the clear goal of removing him then?
Who knows.
If the mission is to protect civilians but not oust Qaddafi, though we’d support that goal—but not at the cost of American lives—then what is Obama communicating to the American people, to American allies, and to the rebels and civilians living and dying in Libya? The answer to that question is clear: confusion! Vagaries, stupidities, and contradictions never lead to clarity and never lead to persuasion, but it does leave us without confidence in the policy and in the president. And that is not good.
Though Obama’s message was muddled and messy, one thing was clear: he laid out a doctrine for American engagement when peoples around the world attempt to throw off tyranny—even though he now denies such a doctrine, post-speech. But presidential words, where clear or confused, carry weight, and that he cannot deny. In one of the most cogent paragraphs Obama outlined three broad reasons for military action in foreign lands:
It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the needs 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 (1) the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. (2) 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. (3) We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground (numbering mine).
The question becomes—and this was not addressed in the speech—what happens if Iran, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, or North Korea (just to cite a few) meet the criteria laid out? What will America’s actions be then?
Everything communicates, verbally and non-verbally. A president can communicate clarify and confidence or he can communicate confusion and concern. You judge for yourself how well Obama did Monday night, I’m still trying to cut through the clutter.
[1] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya,” National Defense University, Washington, D.C., March 28, 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov, accessed March 29, 2011. All quotes throughout are from this source.