Obama’s War

So after weeks of dithering, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama has finally launched a military attack on Libya, and U.S. missiles are now raining down on GadhafiLand. It was an especially nice touch waiting until the eighth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war to launch his own Middle East military campaign. Of course, all those missiles we’re firing would have helped the rebels a lot more a week or so ago, but the president was a little busy with his golf game and NCAA basketball bracket. Gotta have priorities, you know.

This conflict more or less conforms to the old maxim that liberals only support military interventions – e.g., Kosovo, Somalia, and Haiti – in which America has no vital national interests. It’s not really true that we have no national interest in what happens with Libya, but certainly it’s tangential, at best.

What happened to the Barack Obama and the Democratic Party that so detested George W. Bush’s “warmongering?” Remember when the Iraq war was decried as illegitimate, even though Congress had explicitly authorized military action? Not only has the action in Libya not been authorized by Congress, the president never even called for a public debate on the matter. Sure, we have a U.N. resolution, but it only authorizes force to protect civilians, not to remove Gadhafi from power. But Obama has nevertheless made it clear that Gadhafi must be deposed.

So what happened to this guy:

“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

Sen. Barrack Obama – December 20, 2007

I suppose the White House would argue that this isn’t “unilateral,” since France and Britain are in on it. But Britain was with us in Iraq, too. And yes, we have specific U.N. authorization this time, but is that really a game-changer when just four years ago, Obama was saying things like this:

“Now let me be clear: I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. The world, and the Iraqi people would be better off without him. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”

Sen. Barack Obama — March 27, 2007

And there are plenty more Obama quotes where those came from at the link above.

Personally, I’m torn on the Libya situation. Sure, I would love to see Gadhafi removed, and if a few cruise missiles and low-risk sorties give the rebels enough breathing space to finish what they started, great. And maybe it will work out that way. For the sake of our nation, we should all hope so, because now that we are in this conflict, we need to win it. Just to be clear, I do believe the president, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to initiate this action without Congressional, and certainly without U.N., approval.

But there’s no guarantee this military intervention will be as painless as Obama seems to imagine. According to The New York Times, an administration aide said the president envisions a campaign lasting “days, not weeks.” Tom Maguire is incredulous:

“Days, not weeks“? Seriously? Because several folks (Ross Douthat, Jeffrey Goldberg, Clive Crook) have made the seemingly obvious point that if Qadaffi simply accepts a cease fire in place (which is, after all, what the UN requested), that may not result in the fall of his government. In which case we may be propping up the rebels in Benghazi for years, not days. Is Obama really not aware of this possibility? Does he seriously think the US will abandon its role in the no-fly zone after a few days if the situation is unresolved? Or is he really just too focused on the NCAA upsets to think clearly about this? This “days, not weeks” timeline is absurd, but it seems utterly consistent with the mindset that brought the headscratching “surge and retreat” announcement on Afghanistan.

It’s also entirely consistent with the disengaged president we have seen of late, the one who seems utterly bored and disillusioned with the actual responsibilities of his job (as opposed to the Celebrity-in-Chief part, which he clearly adores). Our allies have no clue what our policy toward Libya is, since the White House has offered so many conflicting signals and statments over the past few weeks.

Obama was finally prodded into action by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and two other female advisers. This leads to an amusing observation by Ann Althouse:

A feminist milestone: Our male president has been pulled into war by 3 women. It’s the opposite of the Code Pink idea that women bring the peace. How long have I heard this feminist plaint: If only women had the power, we would have peace, not phallocratic war.

This win aside, Clinton is completely fed up with Obama’s dithering and incompetence, and she has more or less said she will not remain a part of the administration if there is a second Obama term.

As Walter Russell Mead notes, the president’s eventual decision to take action in Libya fits a pattern:

A certain pattern seems to be emerging in this President’s foreign policy process. On the one hand, he is instinctively drawn to the cool logic of the Jeffersonian realists who believe that the safest and wisest course for the United States is to draw in our horns and make peace with decline. If he could design the world from scratch, he would build one where the United States had a much smaller military budget and a much shorter list of strategic international interests. No drone strikes, no confrontations with Iran, no troops in combat overseas and no prisoners at Guantanamo: just the peaceful construction of high speed rail, the implementation of the health legislation and a focus on education.

But when it is time to choose, this President consistently chooses a more active course. He would rather not think about Iraq, but if he must, he will stick to George W. Bush’s withdrawal plans. He would rather not have a war in Afghanistan, but since he has one he will escalate the drone strikes and step up troop levels. He would very much have preferred the Libyan situation to resolve itself without American participation, but forced to choose between action and doing nothing, he acts. He listens to the realists and makes them feel important — but at least since their ideas on how to handle Israel went so badly wrong, he doesn’t seem to take their advice.

To be sure, it is highly unlikely that even a protracted involvement in Libya would evolve into the kind of ground war we currently have in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It would more likely look more like our continuing “peacekeeping” duties in Kosovo, albeit with more IEDs and other low-level attacks to deal with.  Even so, Obama had better hope Gadhafi folds quickly, because as Mead notes, the consequences of getting this one wrong could be dire for the country and for the president politically:

Some use the term “chicken hawk” to describe hawks who haven’t served in the military; the real chicken hawks in my view are the many politicians who are all for the use of force before the shooting starts but turn tail and seek cover once the war turns out to be hard. Senator John Kerry is a classic example; he has plenty of colleagues in the Senate and beyond who voted for both the Iraq and Afghan wars while they were popular, and then blamed Bush for everything that went wrong when life got hard.

These reminted humanitarian hawks will drop Obama and his Libyan war in a heartbeat should things go wrong. They are loud but not serious about war; they are too callow about the risks of war before we get in, and too callow and glib about the cost of defeat once the war starts. They feel more acutely than they think; they feel humanitarian anguish when dictators slaughter their people and advocate unnecessary war. Pretty soon they will feel the horror, the waste and the political unpopularity of war and conclude — as so many did in Iraq — that no price is too high to pay to bring the war to an end, however inglorious and chaotic.

President Obama beware: If US troops are fighting in Libya in 2012 the ‘humanitarian hawks’ will likely be out campaigning against you in New Hampshire. It’s emphatically not a good sign that these weak-winged humanitarian hawks seem to have a lot of weight in Obama’s councils. There are no weaker pillars on which a wartime president can lean, no less trustworthy allies when the going gets tough….

But all that said, President Obama has climbed out on a limb and it is not easy to see how he can avoid a choice between a humiliating climb down or an open ended commitment to what could quickly become our third simultaneous Middle Eastern war. He has talked himself into a corner and we must hope he can climb out of it as deftly as possible….

Another problem is the gap between the UN resolution (which calls on Gaddafi to refrain from massacring the people of Libya) and President Obama’s stated objective of, well, regime change in Libya. “Gaddafi must go,” the President has repeatedly said.

Any outcome that leaves Gaddafi in office will be a defeat for the United States, but it is far from clear that the establishment of no-fly and no-drive zones plus air strikes will bring Gaddafi down. What does Obama do if the no-fly and no-drive zones and the airstrikes don’t work?

Read the whole thing. And pray the president knows what he is doing.

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