In Speech, Obama Touts 'Responsibility To Act'

In his speech Monday, President Obama argued that "in this particular country — Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale." NPR's Neal Conan draws from Tuesday's op-ed pages and speaks with NPR commentator Ted Koppel about the speech.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Last night, President Obama spoke to the nation about why he sent American forces to intervene in Libya about the aims and limits of that operation and about the circumstances that demand the use of armed force.

Point by point, he also addressed critics from across the political spectrum: those who charge that he waited too long, those who believe he shouldn't have acted at all and those who wonder what comes next.

Yesterday, we asked you to listen to the president's address, then talk with your families, friends, neighbors and colleagues, report back to us today.

So what did they tell you? What did you hear in the president's speech? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an update on the crisis in Japan's nuclear power plant, but first, reaction to the president's address on Libya. We'll also read from a variety of opinion pieces today, and NPR commentator Ted Koppel joins us from us his home in Maryland. Ted, always good to have you with us.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And on this program and others, Ted, you've asked: Why Libya? Why not Bahrain or Congo or half-a-dozen other places where terrible things are happening? And that was one of the points the president focused on last night.

President BARACK OBAMA: It's true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. Given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need 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 the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. 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. We also had the ability to stop Gadhafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

CONAN: So, Ted, did that answer your concern?

KOPPEL: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What do you continue to worry about?

KOPPEL: Well, I worry about the law of unintended consequences, Neal. I keep thinking back to what Bush 41, President George H.W. Bush, did in that interregnum period between the time that he lost the election to Bill Clinton and the time that Clinton was actually inaugurated.

And it was an act of great humanitarianism: hundreds of thousands of people, it was feared, were going to starve to death in Somalia. And President Bush sent the Marines over there with food in what was, I believe, one of the purest humanitarian missions that the United States government has ever engaged in.

The end result was that eventually U.S. troops were drawn into some of the tribal warfare. The tribal warfare itself ended up in killing a number, as I recall, Pakistani U.N. peacekeeping forces that were there. And eventually American forces were killed.

It was actually turned into an extraordinary book and a movie called "Black Hawk Down." And you may recall that there was that terrible video of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu behind a truck.

What is so telling about that story is: A, we went in with the best of intentions; B, President Clinton then pulled U.S. troops out after that; and C, a few weeks later, the massacres began in Rwanda, and so shell-shocked was the U.S. administration by what had happened a few weeks previously in Somalia that we did nothing.

This time, ironically, it is the massacre in Rwanda that caused certain members of the Obama administration to feel that we absolutely had to act in Libya. We have now done that. I believe we have absolutely no idea of where this thing is going next.

We have very little idea as to who the rebels are, and indeed, if the rebels were to win this fight with our assistance, I'm not sure that six months or a year down the road, we would actually find that they are people that, from a political point of view, we wanted to support in the first place.

That's just one of many concerns that I have.

CONAN: Well, to go back to the point you just mentioned about intervening to prevent a massacre, the president said that had - this was not just tactical and marginal. That had strategic implications, as well.

Pres. OBAMA: A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful, yet fragile, transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.

The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.

CONAN: And that is said to be a message that refutes the idea that Hosni Mubarak's big mistake was not to massacre the protesters in Tahrir Square and something that may think may cause people in Bahrain or in Damascus to think twice before they do the same.

KOPPEL: I get it. I understand it. But it's an inconsistent kind of theory, as I think the president himself was and would be the first to acknowledge.

It does nothing to explain the inaction of the world community over these past 10, 12 years in Congo, where as many as five million people have died. It does nothing to explain our inaction in the face of something, ironically, that's very similar going on in the Ivory Coast today, where somewhere between 700,000 and a million refugees have been driven out of their homes because the former president, who was defeated in an election back in November, refuses to leave, and his supporters are killing people at random (unintelligible) numbers.

CONAN: And I hear you, Ted. But do you hear the president's argument that, for example, had the African Union, in this case, called for an intervention, a military intervention in Ivory Coast, which they have not, and had the Security Council, perhaps with American leadership, called for something to happen, then they might go? But those preconditions have not been established.

KOPPEL: Actually, an organization of West European nations has, in fact, called for intervention by the international community, and nobody has been paying any attention to it. So it's not entirely accurate to say there's been no call.

There is, however, one distinct difference between what's happening in the Ivory Coast, for example, and Liberia - Liberia - in Libya. In Libya, and that is that Libya has oil, which is desperately needed not so much by the United States but by the Italians, by the French and by the British.

And it is, after all, the British and the French in particular who have been spearheading this project, not the United States.

CONAN: All right, let's see if we can get some listeners in on the conversation. Yesterday, you will remember, we asked you to go listen to the president's speech last night then talk to your friends and family, your neighbors and your colleagues, report back to us on what they had to say, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can go with Sean(ph), Sean's with us from Hebron in Kentucky.

SEAN (Caller): Yes, I'll keep it as brief as I can. I'm just curious, I know -your guest just mentioned the Ivory Coast, but there are places in the world today where outright genocide is being perpetrated and no effort whatsoever by the U.S. military or anyone else is being made to address that.

Yet, as he just said, the oil in Libya sounds to me like it's the primary reason we're there to help, and I just - I don't like the hypocrisy.

CONAN: So if the United States can - is not going to intervene everywhere, it should intervene nowhere?

SEAN: Exactly.

CONAN: OK. So Rwanda, you would have been happy that the United States did not intervene, and having not acted in Rwanda, the United States should never intervene anywhere?

SEAN: No, I believe we should have intervened in Rwanda.

CONAN: And then should then, on that principle, intervene everywhere.

SEAN: In cases of genocide and true human rights issues, yes, I do believe everywhere.

CONAN: So we don't get to change policy. Having missed it in Rwanda, we don't get to say oops, that was a mistake, and we should do it now in Libya.

SEAN: I don't believe Libya is the same situation at all.

CONAN: OK.

SEAN: I believe this is simply a case of oil.

CONAN: All right. As Ted Koppel just said, it was interesting - we're going to read some op-ed pieces, as well. This from Richard Cohen in today's Washington Post. And thanks, Sean, for the call. This is Richard Cohen.

Arguments, good arguments, can be made in opposition to the Libyan intervention. Maybe it will make things worse. Maybe we'll get bogged down and have to stay for years. Maybe the rebels are really the bad guys.

On the other hand, lives were clearly at stake. Something had to be done. The world could not simply shove its hands in its pockets and stand by as some madman had his way with people in his grip.

And Ted Koppel, do you not find that at all compelling? In a place where the United States could intervene, with a country with a weak air force, with a coastline where the Navy could act, there were allies ready to go, why shouldn't it?

KOPPEL: Neal, you and I have the extraordinary luxury of addressing issues like this as just individual human beings who can react in a purely humanitarian form.

I don't think the president of the United States has that luxury. He has to be able to look at it simultaneously from the point of view of is it a good humanitarian thing to do? Clearly, the answer to that was yes.

But also: Is it in the best national interests of the United States to do it? You remember this president, President Obama, was the one who lectured the Bush administration on the difference between a war of choice, which he insisted was the case in Iraq, where after all you also had a president who was just as much of a butcher as Moammar Gadhafi is, the difference between a war of choice and a war of necessity.

His point was he thought Afghanistan was a war of necessity; Iraq was a war of choice. I would argue that Libya is a war of choice. And the fact that we know little about the people that we are supporting, except that a disproportionate number of young male volunteers from that region of Libya ended up in Iraq working with and for al-Qaida in Iraq, I suspect we may, a few months from now, regret that we got engaged in this in the first place.

CONAN: We're going to be going back to Ted Koppel as we discuss reactions to the president's speech in Iraq - excuse me, on Libya.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'm making the same mistake as you did, Ted. And also we want to hear from you. We've asked you to act as our reporters on how your neighbors and friends and family reacted to the speech. And this is a response that we had from Time magazine and Michael Crowley: What about Colin Powell's famous Pottery Barn rule?

Imagine that Gadhafi is toppled, and his army and security forces are crushed or melt away. Perhaps tribal warfare rages over the country's oil wealth. Maybe al-Qaida leaps in to exploit and aggravate the instability. Having facilitated a change in regime, can America really stand by and watch that happen?

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today, reaction to the president's address on Libya last night. Yesterday we asked you to act as our reporters to go talk with your friends and family, your neighbors and your co-workers after the speech, get their reaction and report back to us, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

We're also speaking with NPR commentator Ted Koppel, who is with us from his home in Maryland, also listening to some excerpts from the address last night by the president at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, just outside of Washington, D.C.

One of the criticisms the president had received was whether the military means being used, the no-fly zone and the all-means-necessary that were spelled out in the United Nations Security Council resolution, are adequate to the task of his actual political goal of overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi.

Pres. OBAMA: If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs and our share of the responsibility for what comes next. To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq.

CONAN: And Ted Koppel, that is where the president drew a distinction between the war of choice in Iraq and the war of choice in Libya - Security Council resolution, local backing, support from coalition partners who are ready to back us up, and no U.S. forces on the ground.

KOPPEL: I know, Neal, it sounds as though we have all the international support that anyone could hope for or handle. I think it's only fair to point out that the vast majority of the world did not go along with supporting the U.N. resolution. China did not. The Soviet Union did not. India did not. Brazil did not. Germany did not.

Even within NATO, you have Germany and Turkey who are expressing severe reservations about what is going on right now.

My great concern, Neal, is just that we're going to find ourselves in a position of either facing Gadhafi remaining in power for months at a time, in which case I'm not sure what the next step in the plan is, or even if the rebels succeed and win, what do we do, since a lot of this is based on tribal differences and very deeply held feelings of anger and a need for blood revenge, what do we do if the massacres start moving in the other direction? That's OK?

CONAN: Here's an email to one of your points. This is not an email, rather, but a piece by Stephen Carter that was on the Daily Beast. He of course teaches just war at Yale University. He's been on this program a couple of times in the past month. But he talked about the coalition that you mentioned: My repeated reference to the United States military may be puzzling, given, as the president noted, command of the Libya operation has been handed over to NATO. But as I pointed out, it's not clear how long NATO can handle the mission.

Indeed, the organization is in the midst of a significant retrenchment, going under the Orwellian name Smart Defense. The new policy is aimed at figuring out, in the words of Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, how NATO can help nations build greater security with fewer resources. Note the use of the word help and not the use of the word defend.

Let's see if we can go to - this is Nicola(ph), excuse me, Nicola with us from West Marin in California.

NICOLA (Caller): Yes, my comment is that after speaking with my friends and family and community, we felt strongly that the president acted with discretion, that he was in a big enough hurry to take his time, and that it was very well done and well thought out.

There was no surprises in his speech for any of us, but we were - we all noted that Senator McCain mentioned, a week and a half ago or so, that the president should be moving - or maybe two and a half weeks ago - the president should be moving faster. And now that the president has made a decision and moved, we don't hear much from John McCain on the issue. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Senator McCain was on the TV shows last night after the speech. And he did say he too thought the - still thought the president should have moved three weeks ago, but that would have been a unilateral move. Ted Koppel, would that have been preferable?

KOPPEL: I think what's preferable, Neal, and I hate to keep going back to the same thing, but you may recall that Bob Gates, who was interviewed together with Hillary Clinton on several of the Sunday talk shows, made the point that this was not - I believe the term was in our essential national interest.

Even the secretary of defense is making the point that it's not in the essential national interest of the United States to do this.

I'm afraid that decision like this - and the point I'm making is there are at least a dozen countries around the world where the humanitarian crisis is at least the equal of what was being faced in Benghazi, but where neither the United States nor NATO nor the United Nations is taking any action whatsoever.

And ultimately the decision has to be made by each government on the basis of what is in the national interest of the people which that government is serving.

CONAN: This is from a piece by Fred Kaplan on Slate, and he speaks to the criticism that the United States and the president had received from a group that he describes as realists, who say we should never intervene: The fact that the realists must face is that sometimes force is worth using even if the material interests at stake are meager. Some realists like to say superpowers don't do windows. Well, sometimes they do.

But when they do - that is, when they intervene in the affairs of lesser countries - they have to be careful about setting limits in their involvement and making sure that others, especially those with closer interests, are heavily involved, in short making sure the intervention isn't remotely perceived as neocolonial adventurism.

Let's see if we can go to John(ph), and John's with us in Jacksonville.

JOHN (Caller): Just wanted to say thanks for your time, and I'm a veteran. Last night I was having a couple beers with some of the guys from the old unit, and we were all watching it together. And we pretty much came to the same conclusion.

I've been, for the most part, pretty disappointed with the president's performance so far. But last night I kind of had a change in heart. I think he - you know, after I watched the speech, I think he did the right thing, on the one hand sending only air assets in instead of troops on the ground, you know, limits our risks for, you know, for more bloodshed and a continued presence in the country.

But at the same time, you know, there's only so much policing we can do around the world when we have so many pressing issues here at home.

So I mean, I really think that he did a good job of balancing the scales and, you know, throwing in some help without really jumping in with both feet. So I think it was a good move on him, and it's the first time that I've really been impressed with one of the - you know, one of the political moves that President Obama has done.

CONAN: And did you speak to others about this?

JOHN: Yeah, there was five of us at my house, and we all concluded that, you know, this was a good move on his part.

CONAN: OK, and those others, do they have - are they vets like you?

JOHN: Yes, yeah, we're all veterans.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much, John, appreciate the phone call.

JOHN: Sure.

CONAN: Here's - this from David Ignatius in the Washington Post this morning: Several weeks ago, the administration seemed almost to be allying with Shiite protestors in Bahrain against the minority Sunni monarchy. But Obama has recognized America's core national security interests in the stability of neighboring Saudi Arabia, which sees Bahrain as the equivalent of its 51st state and won't tolerate the overthrow of the ruling Khalifa family.

Similarly, in the case of Yemen, Obama's balancing America's enthusiasm for a democratic political change with its strategic need for a strong government that can combat al-Qaeda's operations in the Arabian Peninsula.

That to - Ted Koppel, to President Obama's point that, well, yes, there are other movements in other countries, but every place is different, and not one rule fits all.

KOPPEL: No, I perfectly understand that, and even agree with that, and I don't want anyone to think that there is never a time when the United States should intervene for humanitarian reasons, as long as they are, in some fashion or another, wedded to the strategic interests of the United States.

And I would simply point out that in the two biggest wars of the last century, the First World War and the Second World War, the United States didn't intervene for humanitarian reasons. The United States intervened when it became unmistakably clear that our own interests were threatened, and not before then.

CONAN: Let's go next to Susanna(ph), Susanna with us from Miami.

SUSANNA (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Susanna. Go ahead, please.

SUSANNA: Yes, hi. From speaking with friends and family after the speech, I just - I'm not convinced we needed to do this, since we're not over the economic crisis. We're still paying for two wars, and we're still suffering every day an economic crisis, at least I am.

And I don't understand another intervention when it wasn't really necessary, even though it's for humanitarian reasons. That's all.

CONAN: And do your friends feel the same way?

SUSANNA: Yes, we feel the same way. I mean, I don't think - I would love to go around for humanitarian reasons, but I think Cuba is a humanitarian reason. But right now we're all facing a really bad crisis, and we're not paying - we haven't even started paying for the two wars we're in.

CONAN: All right. Susanna, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.

And, Ted Koppel, that's one of the criticisms that we're hearing from Congress. That this is going to cost a lot of money. We heard testimony today from the NATO commander, hundreds of billions - hundreds of millions of dollars spent thus far, and then - but then, there's the hope that the majority of this can be handed off to other countries.

There is also the concern that Congress was not formally consulted or not consulted well enough that even in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president had some - not a declaration of war, but Congress had debated and voted on a various measure and indeed that that kind of consultation is necessary and that the president had not sufficiently addressed the people of the United States.

KOPPEL: Well, clearly, he has done that now. And I must say what fascinates me - and it's always great, Neal, to hear what a diverse audience you have out there right now - how divided Americans are at this stage. Which I would suggest to you may not be good news for the administration, because usually for the first few weeks, if not the first few months, of some kind of an intervention, there is a natural tendency on the part of Americans to support the administration, no matter who is the president.

This particular intervention has the American people, I think, fairly evenly divided. That's not good news in the event that things start to go wrong. Should the president have done a better job of bringing Congress along with him? I think he and those who were advocating quick intervention would make the point that if they had stopped to do that and waited for congressional sanction of one kind or another that Benghazi would have been awash in blood.

CONAN: Let's go next to Terrence(ph). Terrence calling from Chapel Hill.

TERRENCE (Caller): Hello. Thank you. Thank you, Neal. Thank you, Ted. Just real quickly a couple points. Ted, you hit on it that this was a very thought-out plan - preplanned thing. This is not, you know, some intervention that was based on, you know, faulty intelligence or even questionable intelligence.

This is a unique opportunity to take a bad guy out, and clearly, Gadhafi is a bad guy. He's known for, you know, training terrorists around the world, so I think the president was spot on, did a good job in explaining it. Clearly, we can't do this all over the world. We have to pick and choose our battles.

But this was a unique opportunity, and my wife and I came to the consensus that this was - it was great for the president to come out and talk about this and talk to the American people about why this was necessary.

CONAN: Do you - were you worried, Terrence, at all that the president used the - did not use the words either war or oil?

TERRENCE: No. Because I think the president stated it early in his speech, that he has a clear vision for this. Oil, you know, that's - we talk about national interest and the interest of Europe. Clearly, that is a concern. And this is a concern. I think Americans are concerned about this conflict and getting bogged down here, but I think if President Obama can stick to what he laid out last night, we're going to be just fine. And, you know, in a week, in a month, in a year when Gadhafi's gone, the world is going to be a better place.

CONAN: Terrence, thanks very much with the call. Appreciate it.

We're getting...

KOPPEL: Is it OK for me - may I just make a quick point, Neal?

CONAN: Sure.

KOPPEL: I hate to disagree with Terrence, especially when he thinks he's agreeing with what I said. But the president has not made it clear that we're going to go in there and take Gadhafi out. That's part of the mushiness of the policy right now.

On the one hand, he has made it personally feel that he would like to see Gadhafi out, but he's made it equally clear that we're not going to use military means to achieve that.

CONAN: That was a point made also by David Rothkopf on foreignpolicy.com: Perhaps, a non-doctrine doctrine should not be a surprise given this is a non-war war in which we are leading without leading and which our goal is not regime change, except to the extent that it is. The administration that came into office decrying preemptive military action justified by unsubstantiated threats and inviting uncertain outcomes is now basing its foreign policy reputation on a preemptive military action justified by unsubstantiated threats while inviting uncertain outcomes.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Muhammad(ph). Muhammad with us from San Francisco.

MUHAMMAD (Caller): Hi. I had a question. One of the reasons president said we've been there is because Arab League supported it. Arab League is a representative of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, all these dictators that kill people who don't even have weapons. In Saudi - in Libya, everybody was - had weapons, the demonstrators. I want to know what you think about that. The public opinion in the Middle East is going to turn against us.

CONAN: Ted?

KOPPEL: Well, I must say seeing the Arab League agree on anything, particularly inviting Western, sometimes referred to as colonial powers, into what is essentially a civil war, I think, took a lot of people by surprise. But I also think you're going to see - and I think the point that Muhammad makes is a valid one, I think you're going to see Arab League support gradually drifting away. I don't think they're going to maintain it.

CONAN: Muhammad, thanks very much for the call. And let's see if we can squeeze in one more, and we'll go to Colin(ph). And Colin, another caller from San Francisco.

COLIN (Caller): Good morning.

CONAN: Good afternoon, our time. But go ahead.

COLIN: OK. We know that it was likely that Gadhafi had ordered the bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 that killed 270 Americans, British and other civilians, yet we made a deal with Gadhafi to forgive and forget by Libya paying compensation to the families of the murders.

If the Lockerbie bombing wasn't horrific enough to - for us to take a public position that Gadhafi should be removed as the head of Libya, then why are we calling for his removal based solely on human rights abuses he committed by -against his regime by his own people?

And, you know, I'm not excusing Gadhafi. My father was a Pam Am pilot. He could have been, you know, piloting that jet. But talking with my friends out here, it seems that there's not a lot of realism in the, you know, Obama's position.

CONAN: So you remain skeptical and skeptical of motivation and skeptical of why now.

COLIN: Very skeptical...

CONAN: All right...

COLIN: ...especially with what exactly are we going to do to remove Gadhafi if the no-fly zone and airstrikes don't work?

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

And, Ted Koppel, we just have a few seconds left, but as you look ahead, what next development would you be interested to see in Libya?

KOPPEL: Well, I'd be interested in knowing whether we're going to put any weapons in the hands of the rebels. My understanding is that the Saudis have already began to do so, which, when you think about it, is interesting in that the Saudis get almost all their weapons from us. So the rebels already have American weapons in their hands. My greatest fear is that we're going to put boots on the ground in the form of Special Operations Forces. I hope we don't.

CONAN: NPR commentator Ted Koppel, thanks as always for your time.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Up next, it's been more than two weeks since the earthquake and tsunami pummeled Japan. Why haven't workers been able to get the power plant working again or at least cool? Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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