Timothy P. Carney
At once presumptuous and flippant, President Obama used a Saturday audio recording from Brazil to inform Americans he had authorized a third war -- a war in which America's role is unclear and the stated objectives are muddled.
Setting aside the wisdom of the intervention, Obama's entry into Libya's civil war is troubling on at least five counts. First is the legal and constitutional question. Second is the manner of Obama's announcement. Third is the complete disregard for public opinion and lack of debate. Fourth is the unclear role the United States will play in this coalition. Fifth is the lack of a clear endgame. Compounding all these problems is the lack of trust created by Obama's lazy leadership.
"Today, I authorized the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya," the president said. For him it was self-evident he had such authority. He gave no hint he would seek even ex post facto congressional approval. In fact, he never once mentioned Congress.
Since World War II, the executive branch has steadily grabbed more war powers, and Congress has supinely acquiesced. Truman, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton and Bush all fought wars without a formal declaration, but at least Bush used force only after Congress authorized it.
And, once more, the president's actions belie his words on the campaign trail. In late 2007, candidate Obama 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."
There is no claim that Moammar Gadhafi poses a threat to the United States. But asking President Obama to explain his change of heart would be a fruitless exercise. This is a president who has repeatedly shredded the clear meaning of words in order to deny breaking promises he has clearly broken -- consider his continued blatant falsehoods on tax increases and his hiring of lobbyists.
Matching the offhand assertion of authority to start an offensive war was the unserious way he announced it. While France's Nicolas Sarkozy stood before an international gathering in Paris and Britain's David Cameron arranged an address from No. 10 Downing St., Obama took a brief break from his trade meetings in Brazil to issue a statement at first carried to Americans only in audio form.
Bush has been called a brash cowboy, but at least he started his wars "ex cathedra," so to speak, conveying the gravity of war by solemnly addressing "my fellow Americans" from the Oval Office.
Further, Bush started his wars only after leading long national debates. Obama pledged to be more deliberative than Bush, but on Libya, any deliberation mostly excluded the public and Congress.
The prospect of U.S. military intervention in Libya first arose weeks ago, when an all-out civil war erupted there. Yet Obama never pushed the issue until after his U.N. ambassador voted for the use of force at the Security Council. Obama never tried to cultivate American support for a third war. While Cameron defended his position during question time in Parliament, Obama merely sent a few aides to Capitol Hill.
Nor has there been a clear explanation of America's role in the anti-Gadhafi coalition and the objectives of the war. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of the attacks: "We did not lead this." But Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Saturday that the U.S. was in command of the operation.
Obama will portray the U.S. role as simply supporting the European powers or "setting the stage," but, again, he has a history of playing word games when it comes to military conflicts. For instance, although it has been eight months since Obama declared "the end of combat operations" in Iraq, American soldiers are still being killed in combat. Americans can put little stake in what Obama says today about what the U.S. is actually doing in Libya, and no one should count on straight answers in the future.
Finally, the White House hasn't spelled out the objectives of this military campaign. The U.N. resolution is purportedly about a bringing about a cease-fire, but if Gadhafi does stop shooting, will the rebels stop? Would the U.S. and its allies really leave Gadhafi in charge? Would they partition Libya?
Or, more likely, is this about regime change? And if Gadhafi is deposed, can the U.S. really walk away -- or will this mean more nation-building in the Muslim world?
Obama has allowed very little sunlight to shine on America's participation in this military undertaking. Americans know little about what is going on, and history shows they will not blindly support the expenditure of blood and treasure on foreign soil.