Obama's Absentee Leadership on Libya

American forces might be serving under a foreign command for the first time in American history

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However the current American-led (but soon to be NATO commanded) military engagement over or in Libya turns out, it is safe to make one prediction. Should a motion picture ever be made about events that preceded American participation in the hostilities there, no one would title it The President’s Speech. And its central focus will be on the supporting cast, with heavy emphasis placed on Hillary Clinton, who sees the enterprise as being in the vital interests of the United States, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who does not.

In The King’s Speech, Winston Churchill, the man who pressed hard for the war King George VI declared, was relegated to the sidelines. No one ever doubted that Churchill was Britain's principle military and political strategist in the days that preceded World War II or that he did not want the world to know it. Barack Obama, who made the critical decision to put U.S. troops in harm's way--and at the disposal of other nations--deliberately chose to retreat from center stage. He also seemed more interested in how he was regarded in foreign capitals and on the Arab street than at home. His approval ratings in the United States (45 percent as of this writing) are the lowest any president received as he took the nation into war. [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]

After a month of negotiating with foreign governments and more than a week after he gave his consent to a no-fly zone over Libya, Obama got around to explaining to those, in whose name he serves, why he had ordered US forces into battle. He chose as his venue, not a joint session of Congress or the Oval Office, familiar settings, but the relatively obscure (in the public mind, at least) National Defense University. He made certain that his words would not be broadcast or telecast during prime time. Historians and psychologists will be debating the reasons for this rather bizarre behavior for years to come. [Vote now: Was Obama right on Libya’s no-fly zone?]

As to what Obama actually said, his talk contained some things worthy of praise and much to criticize. The president's assessment that Qadhafi would have carried out his threat to kill thousands of civilians in Benghazi had the United States not acted to stop him was warranted. Obama rightly described Qadhafi as a brutal dictator who has murdered before and whose victims included Americans.

He was on his strongest ground when he dismissed critics' arguments that because the United States took action in Libya to protect innocent civilians from almost certain slaughter at the hands of its own government, it is obligated to act similarly against all other dictatorships that do likewise. Even superpowers are limited in resources and in the willingness of their own populations to wage wars in advance of causes other than their nation’s vital and existential interests. Ike was criticized heavily for not assisting Hungarian “freedom fighters.” Human rights activists savaged criticized George H.W. Bush for what they considered a “timid” response to China’s mowing down of young protesters in Tiananmen Square. Sadly, the decisions these presidents made, while regrettable, proved, over time, in the best interests of the United States. Nearly a half century ago, Robert Kennedy accurately described the kind of situation in which Obama finds himself. Echoing French writer Albert Camus, RFK said that “perhaps this world is a world in which children suffer, but we can lessen the number of suffering children.” He did not say all and in all places and in all situations. Where and how the American government chooses to assert itself militarily, as Speaker John Boehner has said, is a call for the president to make. And Obama made it. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]

Perhaps the president should have concluded his remarks there. He wandered onto shaky ground when he sought to reconcile his earlier declaration that Qadhafi had to go with his refusal to rule out any circumstances that would allow apparent willingness to allow the brutal dictator to remain in power. Once Obama took his earlier stand, anything less than removing or helping to remove the tyrant, by force if necessary, would be interpreted as a diplomatic and military defeat for the United States. Such an outcome would also elevate Qadhafi‘s standing in the region. With sparing the lives of citizens now the stated purpose of the military exercise against him, Qadhafi can be counted upon to use human shields to protect him and his forces and to press civilians in areas he controls to resist foreign invaders, or perish at his hands. He may also revert to his practice of sponsoring terrorism beyond his borders. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Wittingly or otherwise, Obama’s speech and the actions that preceded it may have set at least two potentially dangerous precedents unless Congress takes immediate action. The first is the possibility of American forces serving under a foreign command for the first time in American history. Most prior NATO actions have been largely American led and American financed. Will Obama conform to this precedent? If Congress and, more importantly, those it represents, think this should remain the case, it can and should pass a joint resolution that calls upon Obama to follow it. As of this writing, rumors are rife that a Canadian will be directing U.S. forces. No offense to the good people of Canada or any other nation, but does Congress want to see a day when U.S. forces are placed in the hands of a Turkish or a Greek or a Polish national? (No offense intended to these great nations either.) One can easily foresee a day when a future president will do precisely that, while pointing to the Libyan episode as precedent. [See political cartoons about President Obama.]

Congress should also press to find out why the president could spend a month building support for his actions at the United Nations and within the Arab League, and do no more at home than engage in cursory “consultations” (we will call them “briefings”) with Congress. Does he place greater trust in foreign governments, a good many of whom he consulted (especially in the Arab League) are anything but pristine, than he does in the duly elected co-equal branch of government with whom he is obligated to share power? And all this in the name of starting a war to keep us true to who we are as a people? Congress has been derelict in its duties and the fault for that is not Obama's. For presidents to grow increasingly imperious and promiscuous with the use of the American military, Congresses have to cooperate in the subordination of their own power. The one the American people elected last fall is perilously close to doing that. Some courageous members on both sides of aisle and from both right and left have begun making this point. It is time its leadership spoke out and forcefully, debates are held, precedents set, and resolutions passed.

  • See photos of the unrest in Libya.
  • Take the U.S. News poll: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East protests.