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.