What Obama has to tell America about Libya
President Barack Obama tonight makes a speech he'd rather not be making: Explaining to his country, proud of its military but weary of war, why he has decided to bomb the armed forces of another Middle Eastern country.
TV networks are gearing up for live coverage. Mr Obama doesn't want to be a foreign policy president when most Americans are far more interested in the state of the economy, but he may not be able to avoid that fate.
The networks wouldn't dream of breaking into normal programming for one of his frequent economic speeches, so it is as though he never made them. This, on the other hand, could be a defining moment.
Some think it is too late. One usually supportive commentator writes: "This is really, truly unbelievable to me, and the worst thing Obama has done as president."
The man who speaks for House Republicans, John Boehner wrote a letter listing a series of worries, concluding, "all of these concerns point to a fundamental question: what is your benchmark for success in Libya?"
The president has made his task more difficult with an approach that is either sophisticated or confused, depending on your take.
He has to tell America why it is worth taking action. He also has to explain why he doesn't want the US to be in the lead or in charge. It took more than a week of wrangling before Nato agreed to take full control.
Donald Rumsfeld made the point the coalition should be defined by it aims, not the aims by the coalition. This is a real philosophical difference: politics as the art of the possible or an act of will.
America's low profile may be genuine or just spin, smoke and mirrors to disguise America's real role, but either way it is hardly heroic.
But it may be this tepid message reflects the American public's own lukewarm enthusiasm. A Gallup poll finds 74% back action, much lower than support for the Iraq war or Afghanistan at the time.
If I was Mr Obama that wouldn't worry me too much. He doesn't want to be in Libya in 10 years.
Indeed, explaining why this is not a long-term commitment like Iraq or Afghanistan has to be an important part of the message. So does being explicit about the goals. A lot of people have trouble getting their heads around his repeated contention that a Libya without Gaddafi is a political goal of the US but not a military one. The military goal is to protect civilians. The lines may indeed be blurring as the armed rebels advance on cities where some civilians may support Gaddafi.
We will be getting briefings throughout the day, so I will update, but I expect he will start with the latest "good" news.
He will stress that the US is acting as part of an international coalition, with Arab backing, and that the US's aims and commitment are limited. And he'll throw in some stirring rhetoric about the Arab Spring and universal human rights.
I doubt that he will address what to me are the fascinating contradictions at the heart of Obama's dilemma.
- The tug between not wanting to be the world's policeman and being the only guy with the gun and the muscle to stop a murder.
- The whole-hearted desire to act in concert with other countries, and the realisation that implies going along with stuff they want to do and you don't. (Being dragged into a war by the French, imagine.)
- Not wanting to be out front when many world structures are designed in the expectation that like it or not, America will lead.
- Intellectual appreciation that the ghost of Western colonialism is a powerful spirit never exorcised, and frustration that an untainted liberal interventionism hasn't grown in other countries.