Lawyer-in-Chief Obama Explains Libyan War That Isn't a War

American foreign policy has been drifting - comprising a series of ad hoc interventions absent a national consensus and lacking an underlying set of reliable, core principles - since at least the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

That drift continues with President Obama's speech about the war with Libya - and includes the simple fact that our commander in chief couldn't even acknowledge that we're in a war and that we've taken sides against a "tyrant murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world – including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents." (And with whom we reestablished diplomatic relations years ago.)

Dropping bombs, shooting missiles, deploying massive amounts of personnel and power - all of these are generally understood as acts of war. But Obama can't admit that we're waging war because then he would have to acknowledge what his critics correctly underscore: Constitutionally, he doesn't have a right to do this sort of thing unilaterally when the country isn't facing a clear and present danger.

No president was worse at foreign policy than George W. Bush, who came to power amid promises of a "humble foreign policy" and then mired us in two intractable conflicts that even supporters grant were poorly executed under his command. Yet even Bush pushed to get a fig leaf of authorization from Congress before the shooting began. Obama's Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, instead brandished unanimity among NATO leaders as proof we were doing the right thing: "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.” As if NATO, a Cold War alliance conceived to protect the free nations of Europe from a threat that went missing 20 years ago, is a substitute for, say, the American people and their elected representatives. The president had not even convinced his own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who said that Libya was not a "vital interest" to the U.S.

Obama's speech is filled with dodgy qualifiers and jesuitical flourishes, the gestures of a smart attorney defending a dubious client. Back in 2007, as a senator and candidate for president, Obama flatly told The Boston Globe, "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." Last night, he told the nation that elected him that the cause of action (not war) was "brutal repression and a looming humanitarian crisis." He has dispatched Secretary Clinton to London "to meet with the Libyan opposition" and he says that "there is no question that Libya – and the world – will be better off with Gaddafi out of power" but that he's not going to force "regime change." Our leadership role in the "No Fly Zone" that was first promoted as a way of peaceably patrolling the skies above Libya but was all about bombing the hell out of one side in a civil war, has ended (NATO "has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and No Fly Zone") but "that is not to say that our work is complete." No, we'll continue to help NATO in its new, "additional responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians." Which is to say our forces will likely be there for a long time to come, as they are elsewhere around the world.

What we didn't hear last night was a clear set of principles that might shape debate and decision-making when it comes to foreign policy, especially military engagement. We can't, he said, "use our military wherever repression occurs," but we will whenever it reminds Obama's advisers enough of, what, Bosnia? That lack of a matrix for moral-and-military-decisionmaking helps explain why Obama stressed the rapiditiy of the U.S. action and its short-term success: "In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a No Fly Zone with our allies and partners."

Such a statement papers over the complaints from just a few weeks ago that the president was detached and unresponsive. More important, he knows that the America that made Charlie Sheen the highest-paid actor on TV loves a winner and that most of us ultimately judge the sagacity of military action solely on whether we "won" or not.

All of Obama's rhetorical flourishes and soothing delivery style can't mask the lack of principle that goes along with American power. Last night, we needed not a lawyer-in-chief, but a commander-in-chief.

Today, we still do.

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  • Just Ducky||

    It is indeed painful to watch President Obama, Admiral Mullen, et al. dance around the W-word. Their discomfort is apparent. Guess their hands are tied ... but by whom?

  • ||

    Jesus. Again, why avoid Congress? They'd probably have supported the move. Even if they didn't, that's supposed to be their call.

    With 310 million people, we can't do better than this guy? Or his predecessor? Really?

  • Scott66||

    Why? Because he has contempt for the process. He views himself as a charismatic leader who shouldn't have to answer to anyone.

  • Bee Tagger||

    This seemed especially apparent when he delivered his emphatic "I refused to let a massacre happen in Libya."

  • ||

    They'd probably have supported the move.

    I'm not so sure about that. At the very least, it would have required some extremely uncomfortable Yea votes from once vocally-antiwar Dems in Congress to pass.

  • ||

    In any event, it's their decision to make, not his.

  • ||

    What would have sold me is if he started out the press conference with "Hillary! What is best in life?"

  • ||

    Is she our Conan analogue? Because if she is, I'm voting for her.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    The American people want leaders who are dumber than they are.

    Unfortunately, we are clearing this particular hurdle in street shoes.

  • rather ||

    "tyrant murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world – including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents." And when Gaddafi leaves, Obama will do a Hannibal: I love it when a plan comes together! ...

  • Old Mexican||

    Obama will do a Hannibal [sic]: I love it when a plan comes together! ...


    And in a case of "History Repeating Itself," the Romans also argued the Carthaginians (defeated after the 2nd Punic War) were plotting against Rome and ate their own children for breakfast or something, before setting to invest the city, take it, raze it to the ground, salt the fields and drive the surviving inhabitants to the slave markets.

  • rather||

    lol, this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_"Hannibal"_Smith

  • ||

    So, I understand that the Administration is sitting on the hope that the rebels win the civil war that we're aiding them with, even if we don't want to say that we're doing so exactly.

    What no one understands is what happens if it settles into a stalemate. Do we have an endless No Fly Zone a la Iraq?

    Obviously we'd like Gaddafi to leave voluntarily. Repeatedly promising that we absolutely won't send our military to make it happen seems like it could make him choose to dig in more, though.

  • Tim||

    "This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder's head. Luckily I'm adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen to keep my mind limber."

  • Spoonman.||

    This is why I think we're sending in ground troops. The rebels won't be able to take Tripoli alone, Obama will be afraid of looking like an idiot for having spent millions of dollars without eliminating Gaddaffi, so he'll invade Tripoli.

  • sarcasmic||

    What we didn't hear last night was a clear set of principles

    That is because progressives do not have any principles.

    Principles are for ideologues.

  • ||

    Principles are for DC schools.

  • Old Mexican||

    That's "principals," sloopy.

  • ||

    Right over your head.

  • Mike M.||

    Sadly, that's the only way to get to flag rank in today's military: by being a politically correct, bureaucratic, goldbricking boot-licker. It's why the Army has to lie about Malik Nadal Hasan, even though every fool in America knows the real deal.

  • ||

    People in the military love war as much as sewer workers love shit.

  • Gregory Smith||

    I'm sure there are plenty of sewer workers who love their jobs.

    I'm also sure pacifists and quakers don't generally become soldiers.

  • ||

    I'm weary of playing "Pin the Tail on the Logical Fallacy". How about a game of chess?

  • Gregory Smith||

    Tulpa, are you saying people who join the military don't ever want to go to war? That's like becoming a fireman and not wanting to fight fire!

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Maybe it's more like becoming a fireman and hoping you don't have to fight fire but being ready if you do.

  • cynical||

    I don't think sewer workers love shit any more if you insist on calling it "unrefined anthropogenic biofuel".

  • Wind Rider||

    Yeah, while Skippy was long on claiming credit for engineering and leading the current operation clusterfark, he was pretty flimsy in the cassus belli department - that part of his powerpoint presentation sans slides was pretty obvious, other than a bunch of feel good throw away lines, etc. During, Ida know, what I counted as his third repetition of his bag-o-rationalizations for being dragged into a conflict clueless and buffaloed by a bunch of Euro instigators, the thought occurred to me I was watching the Stepford President at work - because Skippy the "War President" sounded almost 180 out from Skippy the Unicorn Politician Candidate who lucked up and got elected. Did THIS guy REALLY say 'American exceptionalism'? WTF, over? Gotta think the teleprompter flubs were tossed in to divert people from noticing. . .

  • Otto||

    All 28 allies have...now authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan...

    Oh, we're going by the SWANS plan - Killing for Company.

  • ||

    Did something change? I thought NATO wasn't unanimous in this decision.

  • ||

    "In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a No Fly Zone with our allies and partners."

    Let's go ahead and plug that into my online Obama-to-Bush translator and see what we get:

    "Mission accomplished."

  • Old Mexican||

    How will "the great literary genius of all time" look with a flyer helmet and coverall? I have to wonder...

  • creech||

    Like Grofaz!

  • ||

    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.

    So they've authorized a committee to develop a plan.

    That's a long way from having a plan that everyone agrees on, much less goals that everyone agrees on.

    The problem is this: We are now flying close air support for the rebels. I'm not sure exactly how that is "civilian protection", especially when you get into Gaddafi's homeland, and the civilians are likely to need protection from the rebels.

    What are we going to do when we finally bomb Gaddafi out of a town that supports him, and the rebels move in and start the purges?

  • ||

    Classify the pictures and lock anyone who leaks them in a concrete cell naked 23 hours a day.

  • Old Mexican||

    Obama's speech is filled with dodgy qualifiers and jesuitical flourishes, the gestures of a smart attorney defending a dubious client.


    Are you calling the POTUS a bullshit artist???

  • ||

    Will Kucinich offer the speech as Exhibit A when he files for Articles of Impeachment? If so, it would be pretty damning.

  • ||

    Kucinich backed down. He basically ended up saying, "Just because I said it was an impeachable offense, didn't mean I actually support impeaching him. He is a Democrat, after all."

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Actually, we don't need a commander in chief. That's for the military, and we aren't soldiers. What we need is a President who is willing to deal with the endless tedium of striking a deal (really a series of deals) with posturing, uninformed Republicans and Democrats in Congress to begin to resolve the massive overspending of our grossly enlarged federal government. Instead, Obama prefers to engross himself in military affairs, where he is the "decider" and where he can spend as much money as he pleases. Kinda like George Bush.

  • ||

    More important, he knows that the America that made Charlie Sheen the highest-paid actor on TV loves a winner and that most of us ultimately judge the sagacity of military action solely on whether we "won" or not.

    We "won" the military portion of Iraq and Afghanistan nearly a decade ago.

  • ||

    One could make the argument that the Democratic insistence on criticizing "Mission Accomplished" was responsible for us spending so many extra years (and lives and money) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • ||

    Indeed.

  • ||

    This is why I think we're sending in ground troops. The rebels won't be able to take Tripoli alone,

    I see they just got turned back from the town east of Tripoli that they were after next.

    Apparently, surgical air support doesn't work against an enemy that is dug into an urban area with a supportive population. For that, you need either competent troops, or the willingness to just bomb the fuck out the place, which is a funny thing to do in the name of "civilian protection."

  • The Good Guys||

    Well, those aren't real civilians.

  • ishal||

    Well,if the Americans are part of the planet,then Mr.Obama's judgement is very good.Where from does NATO get the fighters it uses - its a world responsibility.
    So good we have people like Obama who can first of all;look beyond their national boundaries and two;can make up their mind quickly whenever help is required.
    Common sense says that,in availing weapons to vampire rulers,western governments commit themselves to have to defend the poor nations;for the so called 'defence strengthening'is usually against dissatisfied nationals.
    So if the west helped Gaddafi into power,the west is justified in all cases to help push out Gaddafi.You must find away of doing it.

  • creech||

    Why does Obama hate the civilians in the Ivory Coast?

  • ||

    When you find out, let me know.

  • ||

    They're like family, and nobody gets under your skin like family?

  • ||

    Côte d'Ivoire

  • Ghost of Edwin Starr||

    Awww..DYNAMIC MILITARY ACTION!!! HUH!!!! What is it good for?!

    Just don't have the same ring to it...

  • ||

    Does anyone else think that "Kinetic Military Action" is a Sgt. Slaughter move?

  • ||

    WTF would "Static Military Action" be?

  • ||

    Doesn't our treaty with NATO mean there's nothing congress can do if it wanted to get us out of there?

  • meeko||

    BTW, if there is no official war, are Lybian soldiers allowed to shoot attacking soldiers on sight, or execute them after they give up? As in country is right now military law (missing the right word) and as they are combatants (you might even say terrorists), but not official enemy under the Genova conventions. Unless someone else declares war.
    Or, as i value sovereignity of country more than some UN dictate, does it mean that Libyan people, who democratically support Qaddafi can now perform attacks on anything what can be said is strategic target, especially on US soil, like bridges, dams etc? Not civilian targets, that is terrorism, but strategic/military and if caught defend themselves as in the same situation as US soldiers in Libya?

    I mean, i am really confused, is UN more than sovereignity of specific state, does UN have some authority over that state?

  • ||

    A decent article, but I don't understand why Reason feels a need to take a cheapshot at W everytime they criticize President Obama's foreign policy:

    "No president was worse at foreign policy than George W. Bush, who came to power amid promises of a 'humble foreign policy' and then mired us in two intractable conflicts that even supporters grant were poorly executed under his command."

    Today it's Gillespie, and last week it was Steve Chapman who wrote:

    "In 2000, Bush argued for a humbler role in the world—rejecting nation-building and accusing Clinton of over-stretching our military. Once in office, he abandoned that approach."

    It is true that Bush was bad with foreign policy, and that he did not live up to his campaign promises of rejecting nation-building and a more humble foreign policy, but it a little something called 9/11 happened in Bush's first year. If 9/11 hadn't happened, both of those comments would be appropriate and fair-minded. But for a Reason writer and then Reason's editor to imply that W simply broke his campaign promises without even mentioning the deadliest attack ever on American soil is absurd. President Obama made his promises after 9/11 and nothing of import has occurred that can explain his change of mind when it comes to foreign policy, unlike W who witnessed 9/11 on his watch. What Reason has done, twice within a week, would be the same as mentioning that FDR ran for his third term in 1940 based on his promise to keep us out of another European continental war, and then accuse FDR of entangling us in a world war without mentioning Pearl Harbor.

  • Vermont Gun Owner||

    I think Bush was wrong on policy after 9/11, but I agree that it's not fair to bring up his 'humble foreign policy' without mentioning the very clear reason he had for changing his mind. I believe that he wasn't being a hypocrite: he had a legitimate (meaning for an actual reason, not including "I'm in charge now") change of heart.

  • tempe dui lawyer||

    An experienced DUI lawyer will be aware of the complexities and controversies that surround DUI cases. So one should be very attentive before consulting a DUI lawyer.

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