President Obama dithered too long before deciding what to do in Libya. Or maybe he rushed in too quickly, failing to consult properly with Congress before joining an international military mission to protect Libyan citizens from slaughter by barely-hanging-on Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. Worse, he violated the Constitution by making a unilateral decision to commit American military forces to the mission without getting prior approval from Congress.
All of these criticisms have been part of the attacks on the president from his critics since the Libya situation exploded. They’re reasonable questions, but disturbingly, much of the complaints seem rooted not in foreign policy disagreement, but domestic political maneuvering. [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]
The dialogue on cable television has unfortunately often featured face-offs, not between two opposing minds on Middle East policy, but between someone who likes the president and someone who does not. The complaints from the GOP about Obama are directed at his strength as a leader, and less so at the actual rightness or wrongness of the mission. House Speaker John Boehner, upset that the president did not consult enough with Congress (although the White House had a classified briefing with some members), sent a letter of complaint to Obama as soon as the president touched ground from a trip to Latin America. Boehner surely has a point, but was it necessary to send a letter and release it to the press? It undermines the genuine substance of Boehner’s argument, and makes it look more like a domestic political tactic than the serious policy matter that it is. [See editorial cartoons about the Middle East uprisings.]
The Libyan situation presents some terrible choices, which explain why the White House spent some time "dithering" before announcing a decision. Going in without the support of other nations could have been disastrous—not only because of the monetary cost, but because of the damage it would do internationally to wage yet another war with a Muslim nation. Doing nothing seems cruel to protesters whose uprising is being put down far more brutally than those in other Middle Eastern nations. Not taking the lead could make America look weak, but it also takes the heat off the United States at a time when the nation is trying to repair relations with the Muslim world. And given this nation’s fiscal problems, it’s not unreasonable to ask other nations to step up. Everyone wants Qadhafi gone, but defining the mission’s success by his removal takes the mission to a whole new level, and one that could lead to a protracted war that is unaffordable—financially, diplomatically, and politically. [Take the U.S. News poll: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?]
It’s a wrenching conundrum, and the reality is that, despite the intentions of the White House, the results will determine public opinion of the strategy. If Qadhafi leaves, Obama will look like a genius. If Qadhafi persists and the West retreats having accomplished nothing—or worse, is blamed for civilian deaths—Obama will be slammed. Despite legitimate concerns about the wisdom of invading Iraq, the issue would have played out much differently in the 2008 elections if the mission had been quick and relatively bloodless. That is the unfortunate political reality for all presidents. In the meantime, one hopes that the focus returns to the merits of the mission itself, and not a search for 2012 campaign slogans.