I couldn’t bear to watch the President’s why-we’re-in-Libya speech as it was broadcast: it’s Spring, after all, and my garden needs planting. Priorities, priorities, priorities: so important, in politics and in life.
We all have our priorities: I have mine, and the President of the United States has his. As an indication of the latter, I note that Obama waited a whole week after deploying US forces before deigning to explain his actions to the American people. He has yet to go to Congress for authorization, although he made sure he cleared it with our pushy allies and the UN Security Council. Having received this double-dispensation, Congress is for him but an afterthought. This is the true meaning of “multilateralism”: world opinion matters, American opinion — not so much.
When he finally did come before us to justify this latest episode of world-saving, he didn’t address Congress, but “the most servile audience he could find,” as James Bovard so trenchantly put it, “uniformed military officers at the National Defense University. The room will be full of people who are owned lock, stock, and barrel by the government. The officers have spent their lives working for Uncle Sam, and they know that a single ill-time hoot during Obama’s talk could end their careers.”
There would be no “You lie!” moment in this setting. Such safeguards were not for nothing, because practically every other word out of his mouth was either a lie or a truth so veiled in ambiguity that it merges into untruth on closer inspection.
He started out with a half-truth, paying tribute to the “courage, professionalism, and patriotism” of “our men and women in uniform,” lauding them for helping the Japanese in their hour of need. No American could disagree with that: in the rest of the world, however, there is a less worshipful attitude toward the behavior of US troops stationed abroad. We may be inured to evidence of US atrocities, but those photos of US centurions posing next to the corpses of the civilians they slaughtered in Afghanistan were published the day before the President praised the “professionalism” of the US military.
I’ll leave it to others to sort out whether this qualifies as an outright lie, or a mere fib-by-omission. Obama is an expert at crafting the plausible untruth: not since FDR lied us into war — and much else — in the 1930s have we seen such a master of duplicity in the Oval Office. Inserted into this ode to the military was, indeed, one outright lie: “Because of them and our dedicated diplomats, a coalition has been forged and countless lives have been saved.”
The lives we “saved” are countless only because they don’t exist: we intervened to prevent a holocaust that never happened — and there’s no way of knowing (although plenty of reason to doubt) whether it would have happened without Western intervention. This is the kind of lie that Americans like to hear: he’s telling us we’re heroes, not Ugly Americans.
Quite literally every other word in his Libya peroration is a lie. Take this paragraph:
“For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom. Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act. That is what happened in Libya over the course of these last six weeks.”
America has played a role that is neither unique in world history nor notable for its benefit to the cause of human freedom. The British, and the Romans before them — and before them, Alexander — thought they could bring order out of the world chaos, and we are merely the latest pretenders to the throne. As for being mindful of the risks and costs of intervention, an audience other than the notables of the National Defense University would be sorely tempted to let loose with a loud guffaw. The really stunning lie that stands out from the crowd, however, is the assertion that “we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges.” After our long and ongoing post-9/11 rampage across the face of the Middle East, it will be many years before any US President can say this without being laughed at. Force, including the threat of it, is the main instrument of US foreign policy, a necessity inherent in the nature of any and all empires, and especially one such as ours, with global pretensions.
“When our interests and our values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” What interests, whose values — and what’s the difference, anyway? The President devotes the rest of his speech to deftly dancing around these three vital questions.
Obama stumbles, though, when he gives us a little geography lesson, in that gently condescending professorial tone he affects when directly addressing us ordinary folk: “Libya sits directly between Tunisia and Egypt,” we are told, “two nations that inspired the world when their people rose up to take control of their own destiny.” Well, yes, Libya does indeed sit “directly” between Tunisia and Egypt, but even more directly it squats squarely between Algeria and Egypt — and the omission is telling.