Obama's Lack of Libya Leadership Could Make It the Next Iraq

The lack of a clearly defined endgame--a vision of victory--may prove highly costly.

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America woke up this weekend to news that the United States had led a massive strike on Libyan air defenses in order to enforce a United Nations resolution authorizing a “no fly zone.”  Whether the strike was undertaken in furtherance of U.S. national security interests or President Barack Obama’s political ones is the subject of much debate.

Muammar Qadhafi has been a problem for the United States for many decades. His support for terrorism has led the U.S. government to strike against him before. But the current crisis, which is more in the nature of a civil war intent on toppling the Libyan strongman, is a much thornier issue with which the United States must deal. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East protests.]

While fostering the spread of democracy through the Arab world is very much in the United States’ long term interests, it is not at all clear that the Libyan opponents to Qadhafi’s rule would, should they take power, represent an improvement over what currently exists. In the absence of a protracted Cold War between two global superpowers like the United States and the former Soviet Union it is not nearly the case that “the enemy of my enemy” is always “my friend.”

At home, there are those who have raised the question why the Obama administration felt the need to win advance support for military action against Qadhafi from the United Nations and the Arab League but not the U.S. Congress.

There are those who argue that by failing to seek congressional approval for United States participation in the strike, Obama may have violated the 1973 War Powers Act. There are, however, many prominent legal scholars and political theorists who regard the War Powers Act as an unconstitutional limitation on the power of the president as U.S. commander in chief. It is not necessarily fair or accurate to attack the White House on this point, save for the fact that it has been liberal Democrats like Obama who have used the Act as a way to attack Republican presidents when they chose to deploy the U.S. military in combat situations. [Vote Now: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?]

Hypocrisy? Maybe--but a violation of the U.S. Constitution? Doubtful.

It is discomforting to see that the White House apparently believes international agreement is a necessary prerequisite for the use of force by the U.S. military but that domestic political approval is not required. In this, Obama has taken a major step away from the traditional understanding of the role of the United States in global affairs, one that has been dominant from the end of the Second World War up to now--covering presidents of both parties.

The politically-damaged Obama can expect a spike in his approval ratings as a result of the attack. The lack of a clearly defined endgame--a vision of victory--may, however, prove highly costly. George W. Bush suffered mightily after his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech once it became clear that the United States' commitment in Iraq was far from ended. Having wavered on going into Libya until essentially “shamed” by French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s aggressive stand, Obama, in his remarks this weekend, seemed to indicate the United States would now fade into the background while letting other nations carry the burden of the Libyan crisis. This is not a vision for victory; it is a recipe for producing a protracted commitment such as existed in Iraq after the first Gulf War and one which led, inevitably, to the second. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on President Obama.]

In order to keep the United States on sound footing, the president must clearly and repeatedly explain to the American people why he ordered the action he did, what he expected it to accomplish and what the next steps will be. This does not require him to set limits that define the actions we will not take so much as it forces him to explain, again and again, what the United States is prepared to do and why. This is leadership--and Obama needs to show it.

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  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East protests.