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.