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Political Commentators Analyze Obama's Speech

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And for more analysis, we turn to our political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and a fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Matt Continetti, opinion editor for The Weekly Standard. Welcome back to you both.

Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (Opinion Editor, The Weekly Standard): Good to be with you.

BLOCK: I'm curious whether you heard in tonight's address an articulation, a clear view of the Obama doctrine. Matt Continetti, what do you think?

Mr. CONTINETTI: No, clarity would not be the word I would use to describe this speech. I think it was a speech that was caught in this tension between what reality on the ground is, which as you just pointed out in your interview with Mike Rogers, is the United States and its allies are intervening in a civil war on the side of the opposition to Moammar Gadhafi.

And the airiness of Obama's rhetoric where he says, on the one hand, well, we're acting to protect people and we want Gadhafi out, but we're also going to stop whatever we're doing as soon as possible.

There's a real tension there, and I just am wondering whether Obama's simply confused about what's happening and what his intentions are or is he actually kind of devious. And what he's doing is he knows full well that the mission is to remove Gadhafi from power, but he understands the domestic political situation at home and the realities of geopolitics mean that he has to be somewhat circumspect in how he describes it.

My fear, though, is that in trying to avoid these mistakes of Iraq, as he laid out - the cost, the ground troops, the time - he may be creating another Saddam Hussein. By which I mean if we get into a situation where Gadhafi is, you know, relegated to Tripoli and he can't, you know, lash out and destroy Benghazi, but he also has pretty effective control of few parts of the country loyal to him. And, you know, we have this long process where alliance fighter jets are maintaining these no-fly zones, that doesn't really solve the problem.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne, a more favorable view on what you heard tonight?

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post; Fellow, Brookings Institution): Yeah, it's funny. I thought this was actually pretty clear and direct and that he did answer a lot of questions. In fact, I'd love him to give a speech like this on the budget.

To Matt's point, I think that he drew a very sharp distinction where he actually squared that circle. He has said he thinks Gadhafi should go. He repeated that again tonight. But he explained that he felt that if we try to overthrow Gadhafi by force, we would be stuck in Libya, our troops would have to on the ground and we would face a situation as we faced in Iraq.

By the way, I thought he made a very moving defense - and I actually thought Matt would like this part of the speech - a very moving defense of humanitarian intervention. He said that it's true that we cannot use military force wherever repression occurs, but that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right. I thought all of the language on behalf of our values, and he used the word values over and over again, was very, very powerful.

Now, Matt has pointed to something that I think Republicans are going to jump on. Senator McCain, within about 10 minutes of the speech, was on CNN saying he found Obama's statement that he would only pursue Gadhafi through non-military means puzzling, was the word McCain used, and also that Gadhafi might be comforted by that.

Well, we'll see how this plays out. I agree with Matt, it's going to be messy. It is not - but it was going to be messy anyway. I think a lot of people will be happy that Obama has chosen this middle course. And if the attack on him comes from those who said he should do more to remove Gadhafi, I think he'll be happy to defend that ground.

BLOCK: And very briefly from both of you in the little time that we have left. Was there enough here to sway public opinion, one way or another, Matt?

Mr. CONTINETTI: I seriously doubt it. I think the real problem for Obama and public opinion is the sense that he's not being a strong and decisive leader on this issue. And I don't see how the speech is going to do anything to change public perceptions of that.

BLOCK: And E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: He's not going to persuade Republicans who are critics. I think he may have moved some of the middle ground his way. And I think that line about we're not going to do Iraq again may have been reassuring to some liberal Democrats, not all, who didn't want to do this in the first place. But I think some will be happy he did that.

BLOCK: Anything that you did not hear in the speech tonight, apart from what we've talked about, that you did expect to hear, Matt?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, I mean, I will say, I thought the speech was very well written. It laid out what the administration's position is. My problem is with the position that having decided to go in, they aren't clear of the end game.

And, you know, I have some sympathy for them. It's a difficult task. Nonetheless, I'm afraid he's setting us up for a situation where we're involved in Libya whether we like it not for a decade as was the case in Iraq before we finally removed the problem, Saddam Hussein.

BLOCK: And E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I guess, I wasn't surprised by what was omitted. I found his talk about revolution, saying we were born in revolution. We welcome the fact that history is on the move. He talked about young people in the Middle East. It sounded like an echo of his speech in Cairo awhile back. And this is saying I'm actually paying that promissory note.

BLOCK: Okay. E.J. Dionne with The Washington Post; Matt Continetti with The Weekly Standard. Thanks to you both for coming in.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.