He has a duty to explain to his country and to the world why he did what he did. In so doing, he must embrace the unilateral, at times unsettling, aspect of presidential command. Here, stagecraft is statecraft.
The decision to attack Muammar Qaddafi’s forces may well be justified, but the process by which it was made and announced leaves something to be desired. As discontent roiled Libya during the Arab revolutions, the clearest voice from the administration argued against the very kind of intervention the U.S. later undertook.
Then, by a twist of timing, Obama was in Latin America on a long-scheduled trip when he decided to join military action. His first statement to the country was carried by audio from Brasilia. Later talks and press-conference chats were cursory.
Some critics say he should have canceled his trip. But Brazil is a major rising economy, and that leg of the trip made sense. Perhaps he could have curtailed the visit to Chile and El Salvador. In any case, he should have found a venue to deliver a full-length address to the American people about what he did and why.
Instead, at no time so far has he spoken to the country, at length, about why he felt it necessary to take this military action, at this moment. He hasn’t clearly argued the benefit to U.S. national security that may come from the popular movement toward democracy in the Arab world. And he hasn’t set out his vision of where this action fits into a larger framework: What are America’s goals? When will it intervene? What limits will it place on that intervention?
Of course, I write as an ex-presidential speechwriter. As the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But these are more than quibbles. Long-term military and diplomatic success requires a president to level with the public and articulate goals.
In the 1980s, then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger set out famous standards for military action: “Before the U.S. commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress,” he said. “This support cannot be achieved unless we are candid in making clear the threats we face; the support cannot be sustained without continuing and close consultation.”
Why Obama, a supremely articulate man, fails to use the Bully Pulpit as a vital tool of power is an enduring mystery. A learning curve isn’t uncommon: It took years for President Bill Clinton to feel fully comfortable commanding the podium as the commander-in-chief. At times, Obama displayed a surer feel for presidential atmospherics when running for the office than he does while holding it. The Barack Obama who stood in front of those much mocked columns at the Democratic Convention in Denver wouldn’t hesitate to give a big address to the country about what military action he ordered, and why.
Perhaps Obama hasn’t spoken because he doesn’t yet know what he wants to say. No doubt, the policy is evolving rapidly, responding to events and not theories. Our policy, he might say, echoing Abraham Lincoln, is to have “no policy.” But presidents often decide what their policy is when they have to articulate it in a major speech.
By crafting a speech draft in 1962, John F. Kennedy decided to implement a “quarantine” of Soviet ships around Cuba during the missile crisis. In March 1968, Lyndon Johnson began to move toward peace when he picked a more dovish speech draft to edit than the bellicose alternative.
It isn’t time for some overblown Obama Doctrine. But a clear talk can help steer policy when the next crisis arises, next week or next year. Plainly, he will grope toward a policy that looks more like the aggressive internationalism of Woodrow Wilson or George W. Bush than the “realism” he has articulated in the past.
“The President does not have the power,” candidate Obama told the Boston Globe in 2007, “to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” His 2009 Cairo speech stressed respect and stability, more than an evangelical commitment to spreading democracy.
But the world has changed, and he has more room to advance U.S. ideals than perhaps he expected to. America needed to send a signal of strong support for rising aspirations in the Arab world. As Bush himself might say, “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”
It isn’t too late. Just as the fuzzy images from Brazil were disconcerting, Bush’s first talks to the country on Sept. 11 undercut confidence. A week or so later, he went before Congress and delivered a masterful address that set out his goals in fighting al-Qaeda.
Here’s hoping that Obama finds his voice, too. When he returns to Washington, he should land at Andrews Air Force Base, take a helicopter to the White House, stride into the Oval Office and deliver a prime-time address. We will be listening.
(Michael Waldman, former head speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the author of “My Fellow Americans.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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