It's often difficult to pinpoint exact moments in a person's life that send that person into a different direction--the turning points that, taken together, inscribe the arc of the lifetime. Yet that is what historians and biographers must try to do all the time.
When I was researching Barack Obama: The Comic Book Biography, I reached the conclusion that one of Obama's most significant moments came on Oct. 2, 2002, when as a young IL state senator, he gave a speech opposing the by-then inevitable war on Iraq. In that speech, he called the war what it was--"a cynical attempt" by neocons in the Bush administration to "shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in loves lost and in hardships borne." He went on to say, "I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."
In fact, he supported the war in Afghanistan as it was waged immediately after 9/11, and like many others, believed that had America not deflected its attention to a war of choice in Iraq, that conflict might have reached a quicker and more satisfactory end.
Bush didn't bring either war to an end, so Obama inherited both. Now, though, Obama has a new war, and it's all his.
There are no good answers to the Libya problem. Gaddafi, under any spelling, is a disease who should have been treated with a metaphoric dose of penicillin a long time ago. He's fomented and supported terror, enriched himself, his family and friends at the cost of the Libyan people, and generally been an opponent of any real Middle Eastern progress. Now, in the wake of successful popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the people of Libya are trying to rise up against him. But in some parts of the country, Gaddafi is beloved, and the rebellion shows signs of turning into a difficult, protracted civil war. If Gaddafi successfully puts it down, his hold over Libya will be even firmer, and will probably pass into the hands of family members when and if he ever leaves office. Being forced out by his own people would probably be the best possible result.
But that "probably" is awkward, because we don't really know who is in the rebel faction and who still supports Gaddafi. Indications seem to be that regular Libyan people--not foreign agitators or al Qaeda members--are prominent on both sides.
One part of Obama's statement has already come true. The military assault on behalf of Libya's rebels is truly an international coalition that includes Arab states. This is crucial. But I'm not sure it's enough.
We have a shaky economic recovery under way here at home. Would that recovery be healthier if we weren't throwing billions at the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq? What will this Libyan assault cost us, purely in terms of dollars? Is it worth it? Is it worth the life of a single American (much less anyone else in the coalition)? No, we don't want to see Gaddafi slaughter his own people. But other countries (Bahrain, for instance) are engaged in that activity, albeit on a smaller scale. Do we intercede there, too? Is there some sort of specific body count we have to see before we step in?
I'm generally opposed to assasination as a political tool, but if some Libyan got a clear shot at Gaddafi, I wouldn't mourn his loss. We can't do it, though. I'm not sure stepping into someone else's civil war makes sense under any circumstance, and I'm not sure getting involved in conflict in yet another Arab country is really in our own long-term interests.
Then again, I'm not sure it's not. I'm raising questions, not offering answers. I don't have those. I'm glad I'm not the president, and I'm glad the president is a smart guy with smart advisors.
Because he's got his own war to contend with now, in addition to the two he inherited. I'm guessing he's not getting a lot of sleep these days.