No-Drama Obama: Flying Below the Radar

Before President George W. Bush attacked Iraq, he secured authorization from Congress. Before President Barack Obama attacked Libya, he did nothing of the sort. He did not even bother to consult with the leadership of Congress, and it was not until the last second, just before the bombing began, that he even informed them of his actions.

Why? It is surely not the case that we were faced with an emergency, as Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) intimated when he said in the Senate on Wednesday that “the circumstances moved so quickly with human life hanging in the balance.” In fact, before reaching a decision, President Obama dithered and dithered, and he did not let the crisis get in the way of his playing golf, partying, pondering the NCAA basketball finals, and vacationing in Latin America. He was, in fact, ostentatious in his nonchalance.

There is, I think, a method to the President’s madness, and it invites – nay, it demands – reflection on our part. As Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has recently pointed out, in 2007, Senator Barack Obama remarked, “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.” Under the pressure of circumstances, President Obama has in the sphere of foreign relations done what he has so frequently done in the past in the domestic sphere. He has resolutely ignored the principled statements he made before being elected President, and he has acted in a manner contrary to the understanding of the Constitution that he articulated at the time.

Indeed, on 28 March, when he addressed the nation regarding our armed intervention in the Libyan civil war in a speech delivered at the National Defense University, the President made no mention of “an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” If truth be told, he did not even take the trouble to explain what is at stake for this country. He spoke with some eloquence about there being “a humanitarian crisis” in Libya. He claimed that “stopping Gaddafi’s deadly advance” on Benghazi was in “our national interest,” but he did not specify in any satisfactory way in what fashion this was so.

An argument could have been made. Robert Gates is no doubt right that Libya is not “a vital national interest.” If it were to disappear or come under the control of forces hostile to us, we could in present circumstances cope tolerably well. After all, when Muamar Gadaffi was hostile and active, we did not suffer very much. But, as Liz Peek pointed out in The Financial Times on 30 March, there is something at stake. Libya is “home to the ninth largest cache oil reserve in the world, amounting to 47 billion barrels,” and it supplies a substantial proportion of the natural gas and oil used by our NATO allies the Italians and the French and by the Irish. Their interests and our interests are entangled, as David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy pointedly reminded the President.

To this one can add that Libya is situated in a strategic position in the center of the Mediterranean. One could easily imagine circumstances in which it could cause considerable mischief. One Somalia is enough.

Even more to the point, however, Libya’s oil is not in the Persian Gulf, and it does not take much imagination for one to foresee a time when that body of water might be closed for a time to oil tankers. The Iranian coast running along the Persian Gulf is long. In the fishing villages along that coast, the Iranians have placed a host of small gunships capable of sinking the tankers. We are building littoral combat ships to counter that threat, but we are not yet in a position to do so. If the Iranians are allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, there may be hell to pay – and at that point the oil in Libya, Nigeria, Angola, Venezuela, Mexico, and Canada will be a pearl beyond price. Libya is not “a vital national interest” right now. That could change, and strategic thinking requires foresight. It would be a fine thing if we were to gain leverage in the Libyan theater. Among other things, the Iranians would take notice.

I would add one other consideration. At least twice in the past, Muamar Gadaffi has ordered the massacre of American citizens. On the first occasion, American soldiers died in a disco in Berlin; on the second occasion, American civilians died in the Lockerbie crash. I believe it should be American policy to kill foreigners who kill Americans. To those who say that the time has passed for retribution, I would answer that the French have a point when they say that revenge is a dish best eaten when cold. It would do the world good if it were widely known that, in such matters, we neither forgive nor forget. We wait and we strike.

In his speech, however, President Obama said not a word about any of this. When he asserted that we have “an important strategic interest in preventing Gadaffi from overrunning those who oppose him,” he could do no better than this:

A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful –- yet fragile -– transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security. So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.

It is an unimpressive argument. First, we have not stopped the flow of refugees, and it is by no means clear that their existence is a serious concern of ours. This might well be a matter of genuine interest to the Egyptians, who have a large and well-armed military on the spot and could easily do something about the problem if they wanted to. Second, soon after we began our bombing campaign, the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad “concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power,” and not only did we do nothing. Our Secretary of State, who appears to get her information either from her husband’s sometime advisor Benjamin Barber or from the experts at Vogue, announced that she was under the impression that Assad was a reformer. Third, the United Nations Security Council has no credibility to lose.

In the circumstances, one can understand why President Obama wanted to play down what he has done. Had he been true to the principles he enunciated when a Senator, had he asked Congress for authorization, there would have been a debate. He would have had to justify his request with an eye to the national interest, and our compatriots would have noticed his inability to articulate an argument. It is easy to see why he chose to fly under the radar, why he has engaged in the pretense that this is a NATO and not an American operation.

It is less easy to see why the Republicans have allowed President Obama to get away with this. I doubt that Rand Paul and I are in agreement about the scope and character of our national interest. But we are in agreement on this much. Something is amiss when an American President thinks that he must get authorization from the United Nations but not from United States Congress before initiating a military intervention.

Last week Rand Paul flummoxed Harry Reid (D-Nevada) by attaching an amendment to the small business reauthorization bill, endorsing the remarks made by Senator Obama in 2007. I think that it would be far better that someone on our side in each of the two houses introduce a motion authorizing our Libyan adventure. Then, the matter could be debated, and if President Obama did not do a better job of explaining what was at stake for the United States, our side could vote against the measure. Congress is shirking its responsibilities when it fails to hold the President responsible for things that he has done on his own hook.

In the meantime, it would do no harm were there to be a paid political announcement on CNN, CBS, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, and the like, asking whether President Obama still believes what Senator Obama said. The man’s hypocrisies are legion, and it is essential that we expose them and put his supporters on the spot. I, for one, want to watch them squirm.

  1. Patrick in Albuquerque

     Prof. Rahe – May I just suggest that, rather than making Obama’s supporters squirm, we need to be using all of his buffoonish comments and actions to capture the folks in the middle.

  2. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Patrick in Albuquerque:  Prof. Rahe – May I just suggest that, rather than making Obama’s supporters squirm, we need to be using all of his buffoonish comments and actions to capture the folks in the middle. · Apr 2 at 11:13am

    Fair enough — but, if his supporters squirm, they will not fight resolutely for his re-election. Think how demoralized many of us were who voted for John McCain in 2008.

  3. Robert Bennett

    VDH has during this presidency compared Obama to Hamlet and Oedipus.  Your title made me think of these articles.  Obama’s in for a lot of Drama.

    Also, I’d just like to announce my outrage that you have yet to make a podcast appearance after being with Ricochet for so long.

  4. Sisyphus

    Perhaps history will remember Obama as having paved the way for the second black president of the United States: Allen West. The link is an eloquent defense of the Tea Party and condemnation of the debtoholics.

  5. RB

    Well, I guess it can’t be said(?) that Libya was the “3 a.m. call” that Hillary warned about in the primaries. If it was, Obama got around to answering about 9 a.m., after graciously postponing a golf game to deal with such an annoyance.

  6. Standfast

    As I have been thinking about this for the past few days, it seems to me that congress has been shirking its responsibility since they passed the  War Powers Act.  Why did they give the president so much power?  I believe so they always have someone to blame. 

    Why does congress fund military action war after war and never actually declare war?  Because it gives them cover.  It seems absurd that the same congressmen who fund military action budget after budget can with a straight face criticize the “president’s” war.  But it happens, on both sides of the aisle.

    Declaring war would make congress more responsible, and perhaps, give more cover to the sitting president.  Even so, it would be a lot more honest than the hypocritical farce we have now.

  7. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Standfast: As I have been thinking about this for the past few days, it seems to me that congress has been shirking its responsibility since they passed the  War Powers Act.  Why did they give the president so much power?  I believe so they always have someone to blame. 

    Why does congress fund military action war after war and never actually declare war?  Because it gives them cover.  It seems absurd that the same congressmen who fund military action budget after budget can with a straight face criticize the “president’s” war.  But it happens, on both sides of the aisle.

    Declaring war would make congress more responsible, and perhaps, give more cover to the sitting president.  Even so, it would be a lot more honest than the hypocritical farce we have now. · Apr 2 at 3:56pm

    Yes, current practice suits everyone — except for the American people.

  8. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Margaret Ball

    Paul A. Rahe: Had he been true to the principles he enunciated when a Senator, had he asked Congress for authorization, there would have been a debate. He would have had to justify his request with an eye to the national interest, and our compatriots would have noticed his inability to articulate an argument. 

    What really puzzles me is this: He’s the President of the United States. Why can’t he hire someone who could articulate an argument for him?

    Is it possible that he can’t even recognize a clear argument….oh, never mind. It is distinctly and depressingly possible, isn’t it? · Apr 2 at 8:06pm

    He is post-patriotic. He is comfortable appealing to universal humanitarian principles. He is ashamed of being associated with the national interest.

  9. Sisyphus

    In Washington, the game is all about getting credit and avoiding blame, and the reality doesn’t enter into it for a lot of people. Newt Gingrich can balance the budget while Bill Clinton calls him every name in the book, and then when election time rolls around we discover balancing the budget is Clinton’s big achievement for which he should be reelected.

    Pffft.

  10. shelby_forthright
    Sisyphus: Perhaps history will remember Obama as having paved the way for the second black president of the United States: Allen Keys. The link is an eloquent defense of the Tea Party and condemnation of the debtoholics. · Apr 2 at 2:20pm

    You mean Allen West. Allen Keyes already took his shot at beating Obama and came up short. This isn’t to slight Dr. Keyes. I became a Republican in 1996 specifically to vote for him in Connecticut’s presidential primary that year.

    Regarding Congressman West, he won’t be the nominee next year but he does have a bright future. I look forward to seeing what he does.

  11. Margaret Ball
    Paul A. Rahe: Had he been true to the principles he enunciated when a Senator, had he asked Congress for authorization, there would have been a debate. He would have had to justify his request with an eye to the national interest, and our compatriots would have noticed his inability to articulate an argument. 

    What really puzzles me is this: He’s the President of the United States. Why can’t he hire someone who could articulate an argument for him?

    Is it possible that he can’t even recognize a clear argument….oh, never mind. It is distinctly and depressingly possible, isn’t it?

  12. Nickolas
    Paul A. Rahe:

    President Obama dithered and dithered, and he did not let the crisis get in the way of his playing golf, partying, pondering the NCAA basketball finals, and vacationing in Latin America. He was, in fact, ostentatious in his nonchalance.

    There is, I think, a method to the President’s madness, and it invites – nay, it demands – reflection on our part.

    Such is the prerogative of Kings.

    As for the method in the madness, there is none other than furthering the glory of the King. That is the task of the minions — in this case Hillary, Gates, Rice, etc.

    Obama is crowned for life in his world. He will live and be treated as royalty the rest of his life, even if he is not reelected, and he knows it.

    He exhibits the aloof and superior detachment of the divinely anointed.

  13. tabula rasa
    Margaret Ball

     

    He’s the President of the United States. Why can’t he hire someone who could articulate an argument for him?

    Is it possible that he can’t even recognize a clear argument….

    Margaret addresses a point that has continually baffled me about the inner-workings of Obama’s mind.  I’ve practiced law nigh on to 36 years and have seen many legal arguments (ranging from brilliant to worse than mediocre).  The good ones are always internally consistent.  The bad ones are just a stinky pile of non sequiturs.

    Obama’s policy positions are worse than non sequiturs.  They are utterly inconsistent–at complete odds with earlier statements.  Two explanations suggest themselves:

    1.  Neither he nor his staff is intelligent enough to recognize they are spouting inconsistencies (which raises Margaret’s question why he can’t hire someone to help him articulate an argument).

    or

    2.  Simple arrogance based on his belief that Americans are too dumb to know the difference (and he’s quite right about the 35 percent who would believe him if he said he saw a unicorn).

    I believe it’s the latter–but either alternative should disqualify him from the presidency.

  14. Sisyphus
    Margaret Ball

    Paul A. Rahe: Had he been true to the principles he enunciated when a Senator, had he asked Congress for authorization, there would have been a debate. He would have had to justify his request with an eye to the national interest, and our compatriots would have noticed his inability to articulate an argument. 

    What really puzzles me is this: He’s the President of the United States. Why can’t he hire someone who could articulate an argument for him?

    Is it possible that he can’t even recognize a clear argument….oh, never mind. It is distinctly and depressingly possible, isn’t it? · Apr 2 at 8:06pm

    Obama has never questioned his own decisions and abilities. He knows he just needs to speak and the rocks and stones themselves will start to sing: Obama-hey, Obama-bama-bama-hey, Bama-ho-bama-hey, bama, Only the racists, like his grandmother, ignore his obvious wisdom out of envy. (By the way, this is not far from what his cult of personality says.) 

  15. wilber forge
    Sisyphus

    Margaret Ball

    Paul A. Rahe: Had he been true to the principles he enunciated when a Senator, had he asked Congress for authorization, there would have been a debate. He would have had to justify his request with an eye to the national interest, and our compatriots would have noticed his inability to articulate an argument. 

    What really puzzles me is this: He’s the President of the United States. Why can’t he hire someone who could articulate an argument for him?

    Is it possible that he can’t even recognize a clear argument….oh, never mind. It is distinctly and depressingly possible, isn’t it? · Apr 2 at 8:06pm

    Obama has never questioned his own decisions and abilities. He knows he just needs to speak and the rocks and stones themselves will start to sing: Obama-hey, Obama-bama-bama-hey, Bama-ho-bama-hey, bama, Only the racists, like his grandmother, ignore his obvious wisdom out of envy. (By the way, this is not far from what his cult of personality says.)  · Apr 2 at 9:25pm

    Well stated… Why does this situation continue ? There should be a President, not a God Head,

  16. Sisyphus
    shelby_forthright

    Sisyphus: Perhaps history will remember Obama as having paved the way for the second black president of the United States: Allen Keys. The link is an eloquent defense of the Tea Party and condemnation of the debtoholics. · Apr 2 at 2:20pm

    You mean Allen West. Allen Keyes already took his shot at beating Obama and came up short. This isn’t to slight Dr. Keyes. I became a Republican in 1996 specifically to vote for him in Connecticut’s presidential primary that year.

    Regarding Congressman West, he won’t be the nominee next year but he does have a bright future. I look forward to seeing what he does. · Apr 3 at 7:12am

    D’oh. Fixed.

  17. Aaron Miller
    Paul A. Rahe:

    It is less easy to see why the Republicans have allowed President Obama to get away with this.

    I’ve been struggling with this question since we started bombing.

    Perhaps Republicans believe that they can avoid appearing weak by refusing to begin a confrontation. If Republicans do not believe they can politically, let alone legally, prevent Obama from doing what he chooses, then a confrontation would put their impotence on public display.

    If so, Republicans risk signaling to voters that they are only fair weather friends of Constitutional government… willing to turn a blind eye to checks and balances so long as they approve of the goal.

    So far, I’m skeptical of Yoo’s defense of executive war powers. I’m looking forward to his next debate with Richard on the matter. It seems unthinkable that our Founders, so resolute in abandoning the European model of monarchy, would afford Presidents sole authority in making war despite their awareness that war has often been a vehicle for obtaining domestic political power.

  18. Franco

    Paul A. Rahe

    Though I am way less a scholar than you, I find myself almost always agreeing with your take on things. I didn’t get much of a formal education. I was extremely skittish during my youth, but I’m heartened that so many brilliant people agree with me  (wink) You, VDH, Mark Steyn, the Limbaughs…

    I have been utterly flummoxed that Republicans of all kinds haven’t dealt with this head-on.

    I posted this a few days ago.

    I watched the recent NRSC ad posted here. Pretty good, but not as good as just running his words uncut with no comment, IMO

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