President Obama seemed, in his speech on Libya Monday night, to have to back himself by process of elimination into the one particular solution he has chosen. He accomplished this through navigating between a series of arguments against implied strawmen, and a set of positive statements. The reasoning seems to have gone something like this:
We Americans don’t want to regime-change evil dictators, because that’s not the kind of exceptional nation we are. (Strawman argument) We are an exceptional nation, of course. (Positive statement) Our exceptionalness drives us to protect innocent civilians from harm. (Positive statement) But our exceptionalness can’t be acted on at our discretion (strawman argument); it must be given the cover of an international coalition of unexceptional nations (positive statement). Nor is it allowable for our exceptionalness to put us in a leadership role (strawman argument); we must participate as just one nation among many (positive statement).
Military force, meanwhile, is not the right way to persuade a brutal dictator to depart his office. (Strawman argument) Military force is appropriate for the purpose of preventing harm to civilians. (Positive statement) When we are using military force against a dictator, therefore, we are not trying to regime-change him (strawman argument); we are merely trying to protect civilians (positive statement).
As for the principle of protecting civilians, it is effectively contingent. Obama’s outline of the brief against Qaddafi was perhaps the most interesting part of the speech, in that it seemed to qualify and quantify what constitutes an actionable threat to civilians. Other autocrats elsewhere may be killing their defenseless civilians, but none of them is the solution to the Clue: The Air Strike Version conundrum.
— The mullahs in Iran may have been beating their people to death and imprisoning and torturing them, but they haven’t been bombing them from the air.
— Assad in Syria may be shooting his people in the street, but he isn’t firing on them with main battle tanks.
— The emir of Bahrain may have deployed tanks against his people, but he hasn’t killed 1000 of them in a day.
— Yemen’s old dictator may be engaged in an armored-force duel with his opposition in the streets of the nation’s capital, but he’s in Yemen, and the stand-off there isn’t a countrywide civil war in which a rebel-held city the size of Benghazi is about to fall to Saleh’s forces.
Adducing all these very specific clues, Obama at length comes up with the winning solution: “Muammar Qaddafi, in Libya, in March 2011.”
A key problem with this quasi-Socratic approach to policy discovery is that it does come off so much like a game (or a seminar exercise). That in itself sends an unfortunate signal. But Obama’s earnest, comprehensively explanatory polemic last night created another, very specific one. If Obama wants Qaddafi out – as he said he did in the speech – then by any sensible analysis, the one audience that ought to be convinced of the coalition’s threat to the Qaddafi regime is Qaddafi. Why make the point to him that it would be wrong for the force being used against him to dislodge him from power? – and that the force in question is most certainly not intended to?
Perhaps, in the end, because Obama rarely makes any kind of positive, declaratory policy statement about foreign affairs or national security. He gives explanations, and constructs arguments against whole brigades of strawmen. He identifies pretty clearly which of the world’s conditions he will routinely decry. We have a fair idea what he’s against. But as far as we know, in the realm of foreign policy, there is hardly anything he’s so much in favor of that he would adjust his freshman-seminar rhetoric to effectively promote it – or to avoid undermining its prospects.