Late in the summer of 2007, I watched Barack Obama speak to a small crowd gathered in the backyard of a supporter in Salem, New Hampshire. He had a lot to say about foreign affairs. Abroad as at home, he said, we need "a new ethic of mutual responsibility" based on the recognition that "we have a stake in each other." Thus the need to reinvigorate the United Nations, increase foreign aid, and end torture. Afterward I asked him whether that ethic really arose from pragmatic calculation, as opposed to moral duty. "You don't want to oversimplify it," he told me. But it was true, he went on, that U.S. national security was tied to human security across the globe. Failing states produced transnational problems, including massive refugee flows and epidemic disease. And because how people in poor or abused countries felt about their own lives would shape their attitudes toward the West, it behooved the United States to address their suffering. "The hard case," he added, "may be convincing people that we can do anything about it."
I thought back to that conversation when I listened to Obama's March 28 Libya speech. At its core was the president's assertion that "it was not in our national interest" to permit Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops to carry out a massacre in Benghazi. But what was that interest? After all, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had said only the day before that the United States did not have a "vital" interest in Libya, while critics of the mission have ridiculed the notion that Americans should be pouring scarce resources into a civil war in one of the least strategically significant countries in the region. A lot of things, after all, are in America's national interest; why act here?
Obama labored to explain how failing to act in Libya could compromise U.S. interests: A massacre in Benghazi would have "driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders," endangering democratic transitions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia; emboldened regional autocrats to resist calls for reform; and undermined the credibility of the U.N. Security Council, which had called for action. Those are hardly trivial concerns; but -- as arch-realist Ted Koppel pointed out on Meet the Press on March 27 -- 700,000 people had already fled the violence in Ivory Coast, where the United States had no thoughts of intervening; and inaction in Libya could add only a mite of damage to a Security Council that had watched while Darfur burned.
In short, Obama's application of conventional definitions of national interest wasn't much more convincing than it had been in my conversation with him four years ago. Perhaps, then, the realist critics are right: Obama has embarked on a moral adventure, and quite possibly an ill-fated one, under the flimsy cover of national interest. And it's certainly true that Obama has the "liberal" view -- now shared by neoconservatives -- that American power must at times be used for moral purposes, which is to say for the benefit of others rather than to advance American interests. That is why, right after the assertion about national interest, he added, with uncharacteristic passion, "I refused to let that happen." Obama believes -- like virtually all presidents, to be sure -- that the United States has a singular moral status that carries with it singular obligations. "Some nations" might ignore atrocities abroad, he declared. (Obama is addicted to this particular straw-man device.) "The United States of America is different." Realists cringed.