Once again, by responding a day late and a dollar short to unfolding events, President Obama has made things more difficult for himself. (I hesitate to say a “dollar short,” because spending money may be the one of the few things he knows how to do.)
According to press accounts and administration officials willing to go on the record, the United States (translation: “Obama”) decided to get involved in the Libyan civil war because it was the only way to stop Muammar Qadhafi from slaughtering thousands of civilians in a part of his nation in rebellion. After years of America-bashing, sneers at the idea of “American exceptionalism,” and complaints about American hegemony—a sentiment Obama indulged in the “apology speech” he delivered in, of all places, Mubarak’s Egypt—Obama claims to have learned a fundamental truth. When it comes to humanitarian endeavors, other nations simply do not take action in the absence of American leadership. Nearly 50 years on this planet and more than halfway into his term, the president at last regards the nation he heads as the “indispensable nation” Madeleine Albright proclaimed it to be. [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]
With the president enlightened, his team went into overdrive. Rather than declare goals for the mission he chose to undertake, make his case before Congress and the public, and invite the rest of the world to join with the United States, the administration went out of its way to create the impression both that it was responding to invitations of others and that it needed the permission of other nations to put its armed forces in harm’s way and shoulder the overwhelming share of an effort it regards as “international.” (A friend of mine likens Obama’s vision of America’s place in the world to that of the Red Cross, equipped with tanks, planes, and guns.) Minutes after the United Nations passed the American-written resolution, participating nations, and even quarreling camps within the administration, offered different interpretations of precisely what had been sanctioned.
Absent from all the back and forth in New York, Paris, and South America, where the president chose to be when he ordered the planes to fly, was the U.S. Congress. (It was on yet another of its congenital breaks.) The American people were told that congressional leaders had been “briefed.” (Obama spokesmen had the grace to omit the words, “from on high.”) [Read Robert Schlesinger: Is Obama's War on Libya Constitutional?]
In an op-ed in the New York Times, a former State Department official, once a firm disciple of congressional authorization of presidential military directives, proclaimed that the “debate” had been held. Days passed, and not a single word of congressional protest.
Consistent with their established pattern of assigning credit for whatever they think the administration does right to almost anyone but the president, officials attributed the president’s awakened interest in Libya to the work of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, and White House adviser Samantha Power. All, The New York Times said, had been chastened by the Clinton administration’s failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. The three women, reports said, resolved not to allow what happened then to occur again. (Within days, Obama’s handlers, most of them male, had begun to push back.) Credit the “warrior queens” for staking out a position and pressing for its implementation. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East protests.]
Gumption and guts remain commodities missing elsewhere in the government. With the exception of John McCain and Joe Lieberman, most of the familiar congressional faces disappeared from the Sunday television broadcasts. House Speaker John Boehner released a two-paragraph, non-descript statement that might have been copied out of an encyclopedia.
By weekend’s end, several liberal Democrats, many of them critics of one or both Iraq wars, were crediting the two Bushes for at least taking their case to Congress, and castigating Obama for not doing the same. For the most part, Republican lawmakers and leading Democrats said next to nothing. Hardly what we might expect from a Senate that prides itself as the “greatest deliberating body in the world” and a House that proclaims itself the government entity “closest to the people”—in this case, the people who will be shouldering the costs and sacrifices of America’s latest war of choice.
And where were the Tea Partyers? Dub them the “dogs that did not bark.” For two years, they have complained about elites making decisions that adversely impact ordinary Americans with less access and influence. They loved to denounce Congress, Wall Street, and Obamacare. Fearful of their wrath, Congress, for the first time in memory, debated over what to cut rather than add to the federal budget. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the federal budget and deficit.]
If there ever was a plan launched by an unaccountable elite (this time based in foreign capitals as well as in Washington), the run-up to the “no-fly zone” over Libya was it. The Tea Partyers cheered when the House voted to do away with federal funding for Planned Parenthood ($330 million), National Public Radio ($422 million), and the U.S. Institute of Peace ($56 million). But, in five days over Libya, the U.S. lost $31 million when its F-15E fighter plane crashed, and more than $250 million in fired cruise missiles, with more spending on the way. And they say not a word. [Read: Military Involvement In Libya Costs Taxpayers Millions.]
It is past time that the president, who talks about advancing democracy elsewhere, explain to his own people what he is doing in their names and why. And it is past time Congress showed up for work, physically and mentally.