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What readers say about Obama, Libya

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • David Gergen asked readers three questions about Obama's speech on Iraq
  • He says they weren't as convinced as he was of the rationale for intervening in Libya
  • Readers shared Gergen's questions about the endgame in Libya
  • Gergen agrees with reader that Obama is walking a tightrope on Libya

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four U.S. presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. For another view, read "Now the tricky part" and for Fareed Zakaria's analysis, read here.

Cambridge, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Tuesday morning, thanks to, I had a chance to write a column asking what you thought about President Barack Obama's speech Monday night on Libya and the future use of military force. Thousands of you responded, showing that many Americans long for a robust debate.

We cannot do justice to the many views expressed, but thought you might appreciate a rough summary. The piece posed three questions:

1. Do you believe the president made a compelling case for military intervention by the U.S. and its coalition partners?

2. Do you believe the president was clear about his goals and what should come next in Libya?

3. Did the president enunciate a new Obama doctrine about the uses of U.S. military power that you find appealing?

On the first question, readers were pretty evenly divided. A skeptical reader, YodarCritch, wrote:

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"President Obama may have made the argument that military forces were necessary to enforce the UN no-fly zone and 'protect' Libyan citizens. However, President Obama failed to make the argument that United States' military were needed .This is something the United States needs to stay out of. Let the regional powers handle this. The US does not have to participate in every military action."

SarahB12345 added:

"I'm not swayed by Obama's reasoning. If our goal is to save the lives of innocent civilians, why aren't we involved in the Congo? The International Rescue Committee survey found that 5,400,000 people have died from war-related causes in Congo since 1998 -- the world's deadliest documented conflict since WW II. Many have died from disease. Thousands of people have been systematically raped, and children are forced to be soldiers. Child soldiers who attempt to escape are killed or tortured, sometimes in front of other children, to discourage further escapes. Why hasn't Washington intervened in this humanitarian crisis?"

Other readers found the president's reasoning compelling. As cataylor02 noted:

"This country has an interest in world affairs. We have always stood up for freedom and democracy, I support the president 100%. As a member of NATO we have a responsibility to participate. If he hadn't Congress would have screamed about allowing Gadafi to slaughter his people."

This reader concluded, "Can we PLEASE stop all this campaign crap and have a legislature that GOVERNS!!!!"

I get the feeling there are a lot of folks out there who share this sentiment.

It surprised me that readers seemed split on this question because I felt -- as did other commentators and indeed, many Republicans in Congress -- that President Obama had made a compelling, humanitarian case for why he sent in U.S. forces. Your responses suggest that a lot of Americans did not rally round on this one.

As for how well the president communicated his goals and what comes next, many readers were willing to give the president a little slack. Commenter drupup argued:

"There's really only one issue here: a Democratic president made the decision to use military force, worked together with other nations, got in, kicked some behind, accomplished a limited goal, and got out clean. He didn't spend a whole lot of money (in terms of military intervention, this was pocket change), left room for future action on whatever scale he chooses, sent a pretty clear message to the folks on the receiving end, and didn't get any Americans killed in the process."

Robert937 took a more cautious view:

"Obama is walking a tightrope. To do what the critics want him to do would be to take a leadership role and that neither he or the American people want. We are in a support role and we need to limit ourselves to that. To take a leadership role would be to assume the burden of doing so."

And aaronknight saw an even cloudier future:

"I am not so sure the goals were laid out very clear for the future. I feel the President laid out clear goals for the Libyan intervention going BACK in time (the goals they obviously have been operating under), but I wasn't completely confident that I still understood the goals of future Libyan action. I think we need to understand more about the President's views on what-if scenarios. Like what if Gaddafi is overthrown but the tribes erupt into a massive civil war and use genocide against one ANOTHER? Do we intervene further, or do we treat it like Sudan and Congo?"

I share the concerns this third reader raised. While I thought the president's speech did a great job explaining the past, it was fuzzy about what he and our coalition partners will do in the weeks ahead. The president is known and respected for his thoughtful, deliberative decision making, but in this case -- as the NATO commanding general told Congress on Tuesday -- the endgame is unclear.

On the question of the Obama doctrine, responses varied, but it seemed like an "Obama doctrine" was at least beginning to emerge. One reader -- TruthSpitta -- characterized it this way:

"Obama articulated his position perfectly. America won't step in EVERY time to solve EVERY problem internationally, but we will help out when it's the right thing to do, when the situation calls for it, and we are able to make a difference."

Madison interpreted it similarly:

"I am pleased with the so-called "Obama Doctrine". It requires the U.S. to pick its battles. The decision to intervene is based on a) egregious actions by a foreign entity (specifically against its own citizens or against U.S. interests); b) wide collaboration from the international community, set up in advance; c) shared costs with the international community; d) perceived benefit to the U.S. or to the U.S. role as world leader; and e) perceived risk.

"Why would we not follow such guidelines in all of our actions?"

I thought these were insightful analyses of the policy the president pointed us toward on Monday night. But as all of the comments above (and many more not quoted) show us, there remain a number of questions to be answered as our understanding of the "Obama doctrine" unfolds.

There is no question that the president's position here is fraught with difficulty -- the reader who called it "walking a tightrope" did a great job of emphasizing the perils that must accompany the decision to send young men and women into harm's way.

As I wrote Tuesday morning, I thought the president's speech persuasively explained why we intervened, but left the future much murkier. At the same time, the speech advanced an important conversation about American leadership in the world -- will we "pay any price, bear any burden," as JFK promised a half century ago, or will we adopt the more cautious approach the president seemed to endorse?

I was happy to see that conversation continue on this page today and hope that it will continue in the days and weeks ahead.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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