John B. Judis: Obama and American Power





[John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.]

Presidents and secretaries of state have not always come entirely clean in explaining why they were doing things, especially military actions. They tend to leave out key motives: Think of Ronald Reagan invading Grenada in 1982 to save medical students who unaccountably found themselves in danger; George H.W. Bush conjuring up Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait, but not mentioning Iraqi control of global oil; or George W. Bush invoking Saddam’s nuclear arsenal to justify an invasion of Iraq.

In justifying America’s armed intervention in Libya, President Barack Obama left some loose ends and unspoken subtexts on the teleprompter, but all in all, he came pretty close to giving an argument for intervention that had a lot to do with why he decided to send American warships and planes. He also contributed a few important distinctions to the development of a post-Cold War foreign policy—something that two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall still remains murky.

In his speech, Obama laid out two categories of situation that justify intervention. The first is when America and its allies and America’s “core interests” are threatened. In that case, the president would “never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally.” It is not clear what our “core” (as opposed to “peripheral”?) interests are, but generally what Obama seems to be referring to is either a direct military attack on us or our allies, or actions that immediately threaten our military and economic security. In that case, he would order our forces into action immediately.

The second category consists of cases “when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are.” This is itself a tricky formulation because it attempts to combine idealism and realism through the use of the word “and.” He explains that...


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