Some people don’t know what country President Barack Obama was born in. I don’t know what country he’s president of.
When he’s talking about trade agreements, Obama is as parochial as a UAW shop steward.
When protecting calcified domestic industries, he’s as nationalistic as a Frenchman.
His astoundingly still employed Treasury Secretary denounces foreign central bankers like an old school South American strongman.
For the Olympics, a primitive exercise in flag-waving, Obama will travel across oceans in a vain attempt to bring home the gold.
Yet during wartime—when patriotism and group identity and blind tribalism actually have some value—Obama turns into a neoliberal internationalist, Mr. Arugula with a splendid military.
Yesterday evening, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kept her press gaggle waiting for more than an hour before emerging to make this clear-as-mud announcement about the unconstitutional war in Libya: “All 28 allies have...now authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission under Resolution 1973.”
What does this mean? Is the president, having ignored the intentionally complex process of getting congressional agreement on war, now subjecting our armed forces to the unintentionally complex process of getting agreement among 28 different countries? Will NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen be calling the shots for American forces, or just for the no-fly zone portion of the operation? Are there other kinetic military operations going on other than the no-fly zone? Why does Rasmussen refer to the coalition operation as “separate” from the NATO operation? Why is a Cold War-era trans-Atlantic mutual defense alliance the correct tool for a time-limited, scope-limited act of power projection in North Africa? Should Americans ever be listening to somebody with a Soviet-sounding title like “Secretary-General”?
And most important: Does Obama view himself as the president of the United States or as the president of the international community?
I’d prefer he stick with doing just the former, but the latter is easily justified once you concede that the U.S. Constitution has become subordinate not to presidential will but to international consensus. In the first decade of the 21st century it was fashionable for Americans to ask “Why do they hate us?” But the real problem is that they love us, that the world is incapable even of imagining a war—punitive, humanitarian, mercantile, U.N.-approved, or other—that is not led by the United States.
While this assumption made sense when building coalitions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq (where the invasions themselves were American ideas), it also gets applied to interventions like the Balkans wars of the 1990s (which employed American air power and, despite promises to the contrary, American ground troops in "peacekeeping" roles) and to the debate over intervention in Darfur (which did not). Just listen to Bahraini political activist Hussein Muhammad, who in a phone call to The New York Times last week hollered, “Where are the Americans, where are the Americans, why are they allowing this, they are killing us with heavy guns, where are the Americans?” Whether we have a long history with the civil or cross-border combatants in question or we just seem like the likeliest suckers, somebody, and usually a group of somebodies, always wants the Americans to intervene.
In the case of Libya this is particularly unjust. The impetus for a U.S. attack came from Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, and a consensus of the long-past-its-prime Arab League. France was the second country on this planet to field an air force, and its air force was made a stand-alone military branch more than a decade before our own. British pilots fought Hitler’s Luftwaffe to a standstill. The Arab countries (as dissident Yeminis and Bahrainis are learning at this moment) bristle with American weaponry. Why did they need us?
But the love of American military power, like romantic love, dies once it is consummated. The Arab League has inevitably cooled in its enthusiasm for Operation Odyssey Dawn, and the long delays and frequent miscommunications in NATO policymaking do not, I’m guessing, indicate an abundance of consensus or good will.
When wars are conducted with neither respect for law nor honest-to-God nationalism, the efforts of the mainstream media to drum up domestic support for them are never pretty. There is no longer any justification for putting manned fighter aircraft into combat. Even if there were, it’s been 10 years since Lockheed won the contract for the joint strike fighter, and five years since the first flight of the F-35. So when you hear the good news that the two-man crew of a downed F-15 was rescued by locals, ask not: “Were any of the rescuers attacked by our own forces while they were trying to help?” (They were.) Ask: “Why are we still putting up the ancient F-15 at all?”
In the answer to that question is the secret of post-Cold War interventionism. The armed services cost a lot to do very little, and we are calling on them to maintain three full-time wars as well as clandestine killings and supporting actions beyond number. We invade and brutalize the world not only because we want to but because the world wants us to. Requests for American intervention in every hell hole on earth have increased since the end of the Cold War. The now-unwinding Global War on Terror was a brief respite that allowed us to believe the American president, rather than the mirage of international consensus, was the decider in all these invasions. Like so much else in America, this overburdened system is collapsing on Obama’s watch.
Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine.