Wars, even good ones, require worthy explanation and justification. Both were missing in President Obama's address to the nation on Monday night.
While the president's speech on Libya was adequate at times, what stood out were statements that were contradictory, confusing and outright untrue.
Mr. Obama said "an important strategic interest" was at risk in Libya. I believe that's so. But members of Mr. Obama's national security team send the opposite message.
The president insisted that America "took a series of swift steps in a matter of days." In fact, the administration dithered for over two weeks. Mr. Obama claimed, "At my direction, America led an effort" to create "a no-fly zone . . . to protect the Libyan people." In truth, the direction and leadership came from the French, the British, and even the Arab League. Thank goodness French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron had the brass to push for bombing. Otherwise Mr. Obama still might be contemplating action, not taking it.
On Monday, the candidate who dismissed a coalition of 40 countries in Iraq became the president celebrating an alliance of only 15 nations operating in Libya. He also insisted the operation's command would move swiftly from America to NATO, to give the appearance of transferring the mission to a multinational body. Mr. Obama didn't remind the country that NATO is commanded by an American, Adm. James Stavridis. So the baton has been handed from an American general to an American admiral.
The president said, "I made it clear that Gadhafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead, and I said that he needed to step down." But Mr. Obama still has offered no real strategy to bring about the Libyan dictator's removal. When an American president says someone should go, they really must. If they stay, America's credibility is undermined and adversaries are emboldened.
Mr. Obama also came out rhetorically for his predecessor's Freedom Agenda, saying America supports "freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders" throughout the region. That statement is at odds with what Mr. Obama said in June 2005, when he insisted "we cannot, and should not, foist our own vision of democracy" on the Middle East.
The president claimed he authorized military action after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress. Not quite. Mr. Obama made his decision Tuesday, then waited nearly three days before informing 18 members of Congress that bombing would commence—in 90 minutes! If Mr. Obama's predecessor had tried to pass that off as serious congressional "consultation," then-Senate Foreign Affairs Chairman Joe Biden would have called for impeachment hearings.
All this muddle adds to the sense that Mr. Obama is irresolute, weak and unreliable, even when doing the right thing.
Among a president's most important possessions is a reputation as a strong leader. A Gallup poll released yesterday found that 52% of Americans see President Obama "as a strong and decisive leader." That's down from 60% a year ago and 73% in April 2009. Only 17% in a March 22 Reuters/Ipsos poll saw Mr. Obama as a strong and decisive military leader.
The economy will dominate the 2012 presidential election, but national security issues will shape public attitudes about Mr. Obama as well. Issues eventually congeal to create an impression of a president's public character. Mr. Obama's problem is that his handling of foreign policy challenges like Libya adds to his image of weakness. As a general rule, strong leaders get re-elected; weak ones don't.
This is a chief executive who is willing America into a subordinate, non-leadership role in world affairs, who sees the United States as an ordinary nation. This is a potentially toxic political brew for any politician, but most especially for a commander in chief.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, March 30, 2011.