Leave it to the inimitable Sarah Palin to have an incoherent — make that asinine — reaction to President Barack Obama's strongly argued case for America's intervention in the Libyan civil war.
On one hand, the Republican presidential wannabe protested, "We're not hearing from our president what is the endgame here. And with Qaddafi still in power, if we're not going to oust him via killing or capturing, then there is not an acceptable end state."
But on the other, she proclaimed, "He did not make the case for this intervention. U.S. interests have got to be met if we are going to intervene. And U.S. interests can't just mean validating some kind of post-American theory of intervention wherein we wait for the Arab League and the United Nations to tell us, 'Thumbs up, America, you can go now, you can act,' and then we get in the back of the bus and we wait for NATO, we wait for the French to lead us. That's not inspirational."
There you have it: To hear Palin tell it, Obama is not doing enough to inspire the world, on whose cooperation we should not wait, to assassinate the leader of a country in which it's not clear that we have any vital interest. Imagine what kind of pickle the U.S. would be in if President Palin were on the receiving end of one of those 3 a.m. phone calls.
Extreme as they were, Palin's disjointed remarks in some ways typified the knee-jerk reaction of many of Obama's critics, who seem to be more interested in bashing him than in engaging in a serious dialogue about his ideas. A less feckless opposition could have raised far more serious questions about the rationale Obama provided last night for joining the U.N.-sanctioned coalition that has become a de facto ally of the anti-Qaddafi revolutionaries.
In some ways, his arguments echo those made by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to justify the invasion of Iraq. The difference is that in Obama's case, the facts that led to his conclusion that military force was required are true. In Bush's case, the purported facts turned out to be a tissue of lies.
The whole world knows that in Libya, a long-oppressed population has risen up against a dictator whose violent meddling in the affairs of neighboring countries threatens the peace and stability of an entire continent. Moreover, as Obama forcefully asserted last night, allowing the Libyan nutcase to continue mowing down the rebels would undermine the tenuous moves toward democracy in nearby Tunisia and Egypt, where U.S. interests are far more obvious. Those are important considerations.
But, at least in Obama's address Monday night, such traditional measures of the national interest are not the most significant factors in his decision. Instead, he contended, the morality of America's conduct is in and of itself a national interest that must be balanced against those other measures. He is, in effect, conflating American interests and American idealism, thereby setting the U.S. on a road whose end no one can foresee.
Here is how the president put it in one of several ringing declarations of that principle: "Born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way. Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States."
And here: "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 maintaining 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."
The trouble with basing decisions on this noble principle is that it quickly runs afoul of the realpolitik that it seeks to supersede. If, for example, it is right for the U.S. and its allies to get mixed up in Libya, why not go into Ivory Coast or dozens of other trouble spots where similar tragedies are unfolding? What makes Libya worth the effort while some other nations are not?
Here is how Obama answers that question: “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 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 Qaddafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground."
That, in essence, is a pragmatic response to a moral dilemma, not a guideline for U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, at one point in his speech, Obama made his decision seem shockingly personal by declaring that "I refused to let" Qaddafi massacre his enemies. He did not do enough to explain why the principles we are using in Libya should not apply elsewhere. He did not dare to make the case that what happens to Libya matters more than what matters in Ivory Coast, though that is surely part of the equation.
As it happens, I don't think the U.S. had any other choice but to intervene in Libya. The alternative to standing by while a tyrant murdered thousands of people is simply too horrifying to contemplate. And I think we stand a better chance of wooing whoever replaces Qaddafi to our side by helping them get rid of him. Even so, I am skeptical about policies that seem to rest, at least in part, on a blurry presidential evocation of high-minded axioms. That's the kind of thinking that got us into Iraq. Let's hope it's not leading us into another quagmire.
Jack White is a frequent contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.