I would have loved to have been a fly on Nicolas Sarkozy’s wall last night, during Obama’s address about Libya. Mr. Me made it sound like the entire Libyan venture was his idea, and that he had been pushing it from the beginning. The truth, of course is that just as with Egypt, Obama was a Johnny-come-lately who reacted to events rather than shaped them. He was chasing the parade, and now he claims he was the drum major the entire time. In reality, Sarkozy and Cameron were out in front on this, and dragged Obama along–and only then with a shove from inside his administration from Clinton, Rice, and Power.
Given the stark difference between the reality and Obama’s self-serving representation thereof, I am sure that Sarkozy–a man with no small ego himself–is furious. Indeed, Obama didn’t even mention Sarkozy by name, and France and the UK received one token mention. In contrast to Obama’s repeated use of first person pronouns, this was petty and disrespectful.
Yes, “Smart Power” at work.
That was not the only pettiness in Obama’s speech. His slurring of his predecessors Clinton and Bush was unnecessary, uncalled for, and beneath the office Obama holds.* Usually presidents, after having experienced the difficulties of making life-and-death decisions, gain a respect for the challenges their predecessors faced, and mute their criticisms accordingly. Not Mr. Me.
They called Clinton “The Big Me.” He’s a piker in the narcissism category, compared to Obama, as frightening as that is to contemplate.
Substantively, the speech lays out what could best be described as a policy of opportunistic humanitarian intervention: the US deems that if a sufficient number of the right nations agree, it is legitimate for the US to use force to achieve a humanitarian objective as long as the risk to US forces is minimal.
In some respects, this formulation is defensible. Protecting innocent civilians from the depredations of murderous regimes is a laudable goal. At the same time, the commitment cannot be open ended and unconditional: costs must be weighed against benefits.
But the practical implications of this policy are murky and confusing, at best. The actual conduct of the Libyan campaign, and Obama’s drawing a line at committing American ground forces to such a mission, suggests that he is fully beholden to the Jupiter Complex–if humanitarian aims can be achieved by hurling thunderbolts from the sky, fine, if not, no. This formulation–which I think is a fair characterization of Obama’s position–sits very, very uneasily with the apocalyptic language that he used to describe the threat Khaddafy poses. Saving a Charlotte-sized city is a moral imperative–as long as it doesn’t cost the bones of one American grenadier?
The refusal to contemplate military means to unseat Khadaffy is also quite difficult to reconcile with the justification for the intervention. As long as Khadaffy and his regime exist, they are a threat to the civilian population. If that is where the threat emanates, and the threat is as dire as Obama depicts, why not strike the head of the snake? What’s more, how is a military stalemate–the likely outcome of the existing military and political strategy–conducive to achieving humanitarian aims? A prolonged civil conflict is a recipe for a humanitarian disaster. Furthermore, Obama’s menu of means to remove Khadaffy is pathetic, a series of measures that have failed repeatedly in the past to unseat dictators. There is a disconnect between a diagnosis of the problem (Khaddafy is a murderous despot with a singleminded focus on survival) and the prescription (economic and political measures that will not threaten his survival). This muddle of means and ends bodes ill for this particular intervention, and for others going forward.
The speech also makes it clear that UN approval is a necessary condition for intervention. But what if China or Russia had vetoed a resolution? Is there no humanitarian crisis so great that would justify a non-UN sanctioned intervention?
It was also disturbing that Obama almost completely overlooked Congress and the American people in his address. There was one perfunctory mention of Congress. Per his formulation, it is sufficient for the president to consult–once–with the bipartisan leadership of Congress not just before, but during, the commitment of US forces. As has been pointed out by many in recent days, this is certainly a far different position than the one Obama, Biden, Hillary Clinton, and other figures in his administration adopted when they were in Congress. But even if one is not fully sold on the War Powers Act, it is dangerous for the president to arrogate so much power to himself, and to denigrate Congressional authority to such an extreme degree. It is dangerous Constitutionally, but also politically for Obama–and potentially for future chief executives.
I would say that Obama’s speech was calculated to achieve one objective: to rationalize the particular policy he adopted in this instance in response to intense political pressure. (Well, that and to aggrandize himself, but that’s a given in every Obama speech. Sorry, Sarko.) As a result, the arguments were so hedged as to be virtually useless for ascertaining a principle that can be applied going forward. Given the far more important–far more important–trouble spots that could erupt at any moment–Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran–this is quite troubling. It means that Obama is flying by the seat of his pants. This betrays a lack of strategic principle, an absence of an articulated policy that will lead the administration to make coherent choices going forward. Instead, we can look forward to extemporized responses to developing crises, with those responses being almost purely reactive–to domestic political pressures, and to initiatives by other nations (e.g., France). This reactiveness is almost guaranteed by Obama’s evident desire to let other nations lead.
Moreover, the absence of a firm policy direction and framework is a recipe for intramural infighting among competing interests in the administration, which will detract even more from the coherence and predictability of American policy. We’ve already seen that infighting–in public, in some instances, as on Meet the Press on Sunday in what was really a shocking on-air dispute between Hillary Clinton and SecDef Gates.
All this is very disturbing. For the really big challenges are likely to lay ahead. Syria and the Gulf are far more important to American interests than Libya, and also hold out the prospect for humanitarian disaster. A reactive Jupiter does not inspire confidence in his ability to handle such potential crises.
* And per Ace of Spades, wrong–and arguably deliberately deceptive. [Added subsequent to posting of original piece.]