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Why Libya? Because we could.

That was the message of Barack Obama's speech from the National Defense University tonight. His remarks were earnest, well-delivered, and framed in the uplifting rhetoric that usually surrounds America's international interventions. He spoke of national interests and our revolution-born spirit. He spoke with passion and made lawyerly arguments dismantling the position of both those who said we should not have acted, and those who said we were not going far enough.

But, at its heart, the president's speech was so committed to avoiding the articulation of a doctrine that it inadvertently created one. At the speech's core, when the president was trying to answer the question of "why Libya?" he framed it with the words, "in this particular country at this particular moment..." and then he went on to say we faced a grave threat and that we had "a unique opportunity" to stop that violence "without putting U.S. troops on the ground." He was trying to say why Libya was special and why he made the choice to act. But in effect, what he was saying was we will intervene to advance our eternal American values ... when circumstances permit.

For all the talk about our responsibilities to the international community and to humanitarian ideals, the message was: Libya, yes ... Congo, no ... Darfur, no ... Syria, probably not ... Yemen, unlikely ... Bahrain, heck no. Not to act in Libya would be a "betrayal of who we are." Not to act in these other places? That was not so clear.

Perhaps a non-doctrine doctrine should not be a surprise given that this is a non-war war in which we are leading without leading and in which our goal is not regime change except to the extent that it is. The administration that came into office decrying pre-emptive military action justified by unsubstantiated threats and inviting uncertain outcomes is now basing its foreign-policy reputation on a pre-emptive military action justified by unsubstantiated threats while inviting uncertain outcomes.   

Who is advising the president on this? Lewis Carroll

On the plus side, the president did announce that NATO would take the lead on both the no-fly zone management and on protecting the Libyan civilian population starting Wednesday. He was articulating a more wisely multilateralist American stance that is welcome and utterly appropriate. But while he noted the sweeping changes taking place across the region, he offered only platitudes about the degree to which our sympathies lay with reformers. There was no better sense of how America's Middle Eastern policies were changing as a result of the region's many upheavals, a chain of events that is potentially the most significant geopolitical shift since the end of the Cold War -- certainly a shift that far exceeds 9/11 in the changes it portends  for the world.

It is the significance of this shift and the importance of sending a clear message to regimes that are coming under pressure to change that makes answering the question "why Libya?" so important. And it is what makes the "we did it because we could" answer both so maddening and so dangerous. Because it suggests just how unlikely it is that we will actually intervene to stop anyone else from the abuses we feared from Qaddafi. That's because the conditions we have found "in this particular country in this particular moment" are so unlikely to be duplicated.  

I'll acknowledge it's a pragmatic answer. And it doesn't box in the president or the United States. But it also says, "read nothing into this, it may or may not mean something." In the town that gave us the non-denial denial, I suppose that's to be expected. I am certain realists will hail it as being wise while idealists will cling to the president's rhetoric and ignore the clear implications that for all our values we have no principles. Perhaps I should be more flexible but frankly I came away from the speech knowing little more than I knew going in.    

The president, I felt, held up a mirror to recent events and tried to persuade us it was a window to the future ... recounting in as sympathetic a way as possible what had happened as if that might give us some clue as to what would happen next.  

For me as a result, wondering where we go from here in the Middle East, it all therefore just gets, as Carroll's Alice would say, curiouser and curiouser. But then, perhaps I should just relax, take a big sip from the bottle marked "drink me" and go with the flow. After all, as Carroll wrote (presciently if inadvertently describing America's apparent foreign policy in the new Middle East): "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there."

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Why President Obama must speak of more than just Libya Monday night

We can thank John F. Kennedy for the common misconception that the Chinese word for crisis contains characters signifying both danger and opportunity. We can thank Rahm Emanuel for the more recent assertion that crises should not be wasted. But it is far too early to determine who will be thanked by their supporters for seizing the opportunity that the upheaval sweeping the Middle East represents.

When President Obama goes on the air Monday to speak to the American people about Libya, he will be seeking to turn the tide of public approval that has thus far been underwhelming for his willingness to join in the international intervention in Libya. In fact, no war in four decades has had a lower public approval rating to start with than the 47 percent that the Gallup Organization calculates currently support the current operation.  

Obama's job has been made easier by the effective appearances of Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates on the Sunday morning shows. During their balanced, well-articulated, and carefully reasoned remarks, the two heavyweights of the Obama cabinet displayed a gravitas and clarity that other members of the Obama team have stumbled and fumbled to achieve since the U.N. Security Council vote to intervene took place. They explained the rationale behind the intervention and framed the goals coolly and persuasively.  

Further, the events on the ground in Libya have also clearly been going in a direction that will make the president's remarks easier. Obama has rolled the dice by getting involved in this third military action in the Middle East. Reluctant or not, he has made a bet on multilateralism and on intervention to avoid humanitarian disaster that, beneath its idealistic exterior, also has the benefit of sending an important message to autocrats in the Middle East: The international community will not tolerate the abuse of civilian populations as a means of staying in power.  

While we are a long way from the final judgment on whether that gamble paid off, there are two things we can say with some confidence. First, despite glaring communications missteps during week one of this undertaking, on the operational side -- in terms of establishing the no-fly zone and containing Qaddafi -- the interim grade has got to be so-far, so-good. Secondly, we also know that the operation or outcomes in Libya will not be judged or even remembered on their own.

This is the critical point President Obama must emphasize in his remarks. He must place this operation in the context of the broader situation in a Middle East roiled by unprecedented turbulence. Although Secretary Gates was clear in saying that the United States has no "vital interests" in Libya, we do have vital interests in the region that could easily be put at risk were the civil uprisings taking place from Tunisia to Bahrain to produce dangerous regimes, dangerous instability, or gains by our enemies.

Furthermore, and as important, we have enemies -- notably those in Tehran and those associated with al Qaeda and other extremist groups -- who see the current uprisings as both a source of potential danger and as a source of great opportunity. They are seeking to identify and advance advocates within the opposition movements in every country that currently has a regime in play or that may someday soon.  

At the same time, we have some allies who are so threatened by what is happening that they are cracking down on reform movements and in so doing increasing the pressure within each of these nations and inflaming populations not only against them but against us as their known allies.  

In short, the Middle East is in play ... and we are in the game whether we like it or not. We depend on the region's oil. We have vital alliances with threatened regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula. The changes that take place will have direct impact on situations in which we are directly militarily involved such Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror worldwide. They also have the potential to impact resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute ... a place where the region's confrontations may come to a head later this year as Palestinians push for U.N. recognition of their independence. Instability in the region will produce spiking oil prices that could be an economic drag in the United States and potentially the straw that breaks the camel's back to fragile economies from the Eurozone to Japan. It will also potentially increase immigration pressures in Europe which in turn could produce major political shifts that could lead to greater nationalism and heightened Euro-Middle Eastern tensions.

The president must make it clear that we will both push for reform and use all the tools at our disposal to protect the defenseless. He must let it be known that we will be as insistent with our allies that they stay on the right side of history as we are with our adversaries that we will work tirelessly to eliminate the threat they pose. He must let it be known that a centerpiece of our strategy will be to work with the international community not just to enforce the Libya no-fly zone but more importantly to promote the swift and effective transition to true, pluralistic, enduring democracy in Egypt and to creating real economic opportunity for the region's aspiring but frustrated young populations. Let's build a regional development bank. Let's reward reform. Let's open our markets more rapidly to those who embrace real democracy. And let's send the message that we will work actively within our alliances like NATO to ensure they are ever better able to quickly and effectively respond to challenges like those this period of change is likely to present. Perhaps this all calls for a leadership summit focused on this period of change and bringing together the new and diverse group of international players who share a deep interest in seeing a more prosperous, stable Middle East.

For the president to deliver a narrow address on Libya would be a missed opportunity. For us to pursue policies in the region in a piecemeal or reactive fashion might have been understandable in the earliest days of this remarkable chain of events. But that is not only no longer the case, but it would be a fatal error given the stakes and the number of other players who see in this crisis great opportunities despite the dangers and some who see danger as an opportunity in itself.