WASHINGTON -- President Obama's address Monday in defense of his military intervention in Libya may go down in the history books as one of the most artful speeches ever given in the midst of retreat with both guns blazing. He stuck by his reasoning that he gave the go-ahead to send in bombers and Tomahawk missiles for humanitarian purposes only. But as he was making his larger case that this was a time when inaction would have betrayed "our responsibilities to our fellow human beings," he was preparing to transfer the U.S. military operation to our NATO allies while sending in low-flying gunships and other deadly attack aircraft to strike and kill Col. Moammar Gaddafi's ground troops.
Obama's retreat while escalating U.S. firepower has the faint ring of General George Patton's routine explanation that even though his army drove deeper into enemy territory than official war plans permitted; it was merely engaged in "advance reconnaissance."
But from the very beginning, Obama's day-to-day explanations for his war in Libya were full of transparent contradictions. Earlier on, after trying to figure out what the U.S. role, if any, should be in Libya, and as the rebel advances began taking territory, his rhetoric grew into a long delayed declaration that Gaddafi "must leave."
But as time went on, he argued -- as he did again in his speech to the nation Monday night -- that America's military mission in Libya was not about "regime change." Sure.
Of course, the United Nations resolution did not call for that and Obama has always been a follow-the-U.N.-rules kind of guy. He was also mindful that Americans were in no mood for getting involved in a third war against a Muslim nation, including one that has turned into yet another civil war against a brutal dictator who has ruled Libya for more than four decades -- and is in the process of killing as many Libyans as necessary to stay in power.
But sending American military forces into war at the beginning of the 2012 presidential election cycle is a dicey business at best. The latest Gallup poll showed that 47 percent of Americans supported military action in Libya, "the lowest support recorded at the start of any recent war," the Washington Post said.
Obama said the central purpose of launching U.S. firepower at Gaddafi is merely to protect Libyans from what will surely turn into a massacre. "The United States has done what we said we would do," he said, so now the U.S. is handing over all military operations to Great Britain, France and other NATO allies. From now on, he said, the U.S. will "actively pursue" Gaddafi's ousting "through non-military means," primarily through the financial sanctions on his regime to force him to leave office.
Gaddafi and his thugs may be breathing a sigh of relief after hearing that. With the U.S. flying at least 70 percent of the missions to enforce the "no-fly zone" and to attack Gaddafi's advancing forces, it is unclear how much of that firepower will be maintained by NATO's remaining forces.
Throughout all of this, the White House has played a very clever waiting game here at home amidst a chorus of growing questions from Congress, the news media and the public.
"In the context of American military campaigns, the timing of Obama's speech was unusual, coming more than a week after the United States began missile strikes in Libya," the Post said Tuesday.
Notably, he waited until the rebels had taken a number of coastal towns, with the help of U.S. attacks that sent Gaddafi's forces fleeing from the battlefield. So his actions appear successful -- at least for now.
At the same time, Obama chose to deliver his address, not from the Oval Office, but at the nearby National Defense University, a stage-and-podium audience venue that seemed to lessen the gravity of the actions he had undertaken. His well-crafted speech managed to thread the political needle at a time when his job-approval polls are running in the mid-40s and his re-election prospects are far from a sure thing.
He said he took tough, bold action to protect civilians from what would have been a blood bath. It was limited in nature and had a built-in exit strategy, and now our military forces are pulling out of the war zone.
In one bold stroke, he appeared to have swept an issue off the table that would have been used against him in the coming election. But there are many more battles to come in the Libyan revolution for freedom from a bloody tyrant and a repressive regime that may raise the haunting question; did we pull out prematurely?
Meantime, Obama knows that whatever happens, Libya is not on the top 10 list of issues Americans are most concerned about -- not when half the states have severe unemployment rates of more than 9 percent. Nearly a dozen have jobless rates of between 10 and 14 percent.
While Obama has been playing commander in chief, Americans want to know what he's been doing here at home to create jobs.
The answer is, not much.