The Debate Over Obama’s Decision to Intervene in Libya

Mar 21 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

A great many people are wondering about U.S. intervention in Libya and it is difficult to sort out exactly what the U.S. hopes to accomplish there.  On March 19th, “Operation Odyssey Dawn” began as aircraft and naval vessels attacked Libyan forces loyal to strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

It is not difficult to discover a broad range of opinions exist. While the Republicans are making war on women, Robert Dreyfuss, writing for AlterNet is suggesting that President Obama is ruled by them, saying in a headline,

Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power pushed Obama into accepting the demands of neoconservatives and enter the civil war in Libya.

In this theory, Obama is surrounded by “liberal interventionists” – not a unique thing by any means. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was by all accounts liberal and quite obviously an interventionist.

Unless President Obama’s better instincts manage to reign in his warrior women — and happily, there’s a chance of that — the United States could find itself engaged in open war in Libya, and soon. The troika pushed Obama into accepting the demands of neoconservatives, such as the Weekly Standard‘s Bill Kristol, Joe Lieberman and John McCain, along with various other liberal interventionists outside the administration, such as John Kerry.

Dreyfuss’ conclusion is that “The[y] rode roughshod over the realists in the administration.”

This plays to the meme of a president who is not his own man, who is indecisive and unsure, and suggests there is truth to the conservative’s long-standing claim that Barack Obama was not ready to be president (what this says about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann is anyone’s guess).

Mr. Dreyfuss, however, interprets Obama’s actions as “hardline” as in the president wants Gadhafi out, arguing that President Obama is “acting like he has a mandate for regime change” despite the lack of such a call from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC.

But this is not the only possible interpretation.

David Frumm, writing for CNN, asks, “Does Obama really want Ghadafi to go?”

“That hypothesis,” he argued, “is the only way to make sense of the administration’s actions toward Libya.” Why?

Here we see not Dreyfuss’ interventionalist president aiming at getting the U.S. into a ground-war in North Africa but a dithering president who, when he said on On March 3, “that Col. Moammar Gadhafi “must go,” misspoke and is now trying to step back.

“Gadhafi,” Frumm points out, “did not listen.” Rather than a strong, unequivocal response, Frumm claims that “The more brutally Gadhafi acts, the more slowly the U.S. responds.” Gadhafi’s fall could destabilize Libya and turn it into another Somalia.  Frumm’s conclusion?

An active Obama preference for Gadhafi’s survival makes sense of the administration’s otherwise baffling inaction.

Peter Bergen, CNN’s National Security Analyst and author (I talked about his most recent book here the other day, The Longest War), offers another take. Bergen argues that Libya 2011 is not Iraq 2003.

A critique of the U.S. involvement in the military intervention in Libya that will no doubt be common in coming days is that the Obama administration is making a large error by embarking on a war with a third Muslim country, as if reversing Moammar Gadhafi’s momentum against the rebels will be a rerun of the debacle of the war against Saddam Hussein.

Bergen is at pains to point out that because of the circumstances, the U.S. will not see its reputation among Islamic nations damaged by its intervention in Libya. As he pointed out in The Longest War (2011), America’s standing was not tarnished by toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, in stark contrast to the beating it took by launching an illegitimate war against Iraq in 2003. He makes the same points here.

He says that while many Americans were having déjà vu moment s over the no-fly zone in Libya,

[T]he military intervention that President Obama authorized against Libya on Saturday — eight years to the day after President George W. Bush announced the commencement of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” — is a quite different operation than the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Whatever Americans might think about President Obama’s decision to intervene without appealing to Congress (something Senator Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, for example, took issue with), Bergen argues that Muslims will not be offended by his actions because the Arab League itself endorsed the no-fly zone, putting it “way out in front of the Obama administration,” which, Bergen says (and here he agrees Dreyfus and Frumm, “was then dithering about whether to do anything of substance to help the rebels fighting Gadhafi.”

It is difficult to blame Obama for dithering. He is, like all Americans, a victim of President Bush’s crusade in Iraq and the worldwide repercussions of that intervention, which lacked the clear-cut support of his intervention in Afghanistan. It has been demonstrated that this ill-considered crusade only strengthened al Qaeda, giving it the foothold in Iraq it lacked while Saddam Hussein was in power, and making the world a more, not less, dangerous place at the cost of tens of thousands dead and millions displaced. As Bergen says,

According to a poll four years later, America’s favorability rating stood at 9% in Turkey (down from 52% before September 11, 2001) and 29% in Indonesia (down from 75% before September 11).

The president was right to be cautious, or to “dither” as these analysts put it. We should be thankful we have a President who actually stopped to think before he acted, in contrast to Bush, who flew by the seat of his pants (his vaunted hunches).

Bergen points out that “Gadhafi is widely reviled in the Arab world” and his take is that “the Libyan intervention will not generate a renewed wave of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.”

That said, Arab civilians are being killed in the allied airstrikes and Arab nations do not wish to be part of that – killing their own people, and Gadhafi is presenting the air strikes as a “Western” attack, not an attack by fellow Islamic states. He is also painting opponents of his regime as al Qaeda – a charge conservatives in the U.S. are only to eager to believe – so they can charge President Obama with an ulterior motive – supporting his supposed jihadist brethren in support of the Obama-as-Muslim meme The question of whether or not the airstrikes are supported by the no-fly zone or contrary to it is one that very much concerns Obama at this point – as well it should.

What seems paramount here, however, is the question of the executive’s war powers. What can the president do and what can he not do? Rolling back the imperial presidency of the Bush era seems imperative. Americans should not find themselves in shooting war after shooting war only on the president’s say so. Republicans, not surprisingly have reversed their own stance. “On Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered his endorsement for a no fly zone over Libya” reports the Huffington Post, though he threatened “to disrupt future operations should the president not consult Congress first.”

Imperial presidents are good, is the Republican mantra, if the president is a Republican. Otherwise, the niceties of separation of powers and checks and balances must all be scrupulously if hypocritically observed. The irony is particularly blinding when we consider Boehner’s statement that,

“Before any further military commitments are made, the Administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission.”

We can only wish Republicans had made the same demand of President Bush, who changed our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq depending upon how things turned out, the “open-ended” goals Bergen speaks of in The Longest War.

A rather more bizarre result of Obama’s interventionalist stance is what the Huffington Post points out is “a strange-bedfellows coalition of progressive-minded pols and Tea Party members” with regards to “not only raising doubts about the underlying strategy but the legality of it as well.”

As I argued above, this is the key question. What can the president do without consulting Congress, and without seeking a declaration of war? As Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in an interview, “I think it is wrong and a usurpation of power and the fact that prior presidents have done it is not an excuse.”

And he is right. It’s not an excuse. But the genie, once out, is difficult to put back into the bottle, and the lesson of power is that nobody, having once gained power, wants to give it back.

According to the Huffington Post:

Under the War Powers Act of 1973, the president can send U.S. armed forces into conflict only with the authorization of Congress or if the United States is under attack or serious threat. Absent such authorization, however, the president does have a 48-hour window to report about military deployments overseas. While Congress is supposed to be consulted “in every possible instance,” a broadening interpretation of executive powers has greatly diminished its “sign-off” authority.

That’s the official interpretation. But,

“More recently, due to an expansive interpretation of the president’s constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and of his inherent powers to use force without Congressional authorization, the President has welcomed support from the Congress in the form of legislation authorizing him to utilize U.S. military forces in a foreign conflict or engagement in support of U.S. interests, but has not taken the view that he is required to obtain such authorization,” reads a March 2007 Congressional Research Service report.

We will learn soon whether President Obama intends to be more like Bush or less like his predecessor, and how he really feels about Gadhafi’s position as ruler of Libya. As to the former, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor tries to be reassuring: “We have been closely consulting Congress regarding the situation in Libya, including in a session the President conducted before his announcement yesterday with the bipartisan leadership,” He went on to say that “The President is committed to maintaining the full support of Congress in the course of ongoing and close consultation.”

Americans need a hard and fast rule that will be followed and more importantly, supported by all Americans, regardless of what they think or how they feel about the current Congress or President. It can’t be one way and then another depending on which side of the fence you find yourself on, and liberals and conservatives alike need to be on their guard against hypocrisy in how they view this all important question of separation of powers.

Image from DipNote, U.S. Department of State Official Blog




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