I wonder how many liberals would’ve voted for Barack Obama if he had stumped the nation with this campaign vow:
“We’re fighting two wars, but as president I pledge to change that policy by ordering up a third. And I will do so by exercising the prerogatives of the imperial presidency. George W. Bush felt it was necessary to get congressional authorization for the war in Iraq, but I will do him one better. When I launch our third intervention, I pledge to inform the members of Congress only when it’s too late for them to do anything about it. Thank you very much!”
But that’s where we are today, in the wake of the American-led air strikes in Libya, amid strong indications ― I know this will come as a shock ― that the mission, which is being conducted in what a top American military official calls “an extremely complex and difficult environment,” may take a wee bit longer than originally envisioned. Which explains the current liberal angst. Some on the left are muttering about President Obama in rhetorical language previously reserved for the likes of Bush and Richard Nixon.
When liberal California Congressman Mike Honda contended the other day that Obama had “leveled a devastating blow to our legislative-executive checks and balances,” and demanded that the president conduct “a serious conversation in Congress before new countries are incautiously invaded and before America’s legislative branch is eviscerated further,” I was transported back in time to 1970, when bypassed congressional Democrats were infuriated by Nixon’s peremptory invasion of Cambodia.
Liberals never anticipated that they would be assailing Obama for rushing to war. But that’s the subtext of the statement released last week by a quartet of House lefties:
“We have serious concerns about whether or not an effective and thorough case for military intervention in Libya was made. Too many questions remain. What is our responsibility now? Do we own the situation in Libya and for how long? Where does this dramatic acceleration of military intervention end?”
Actually, Americans of all ideological persuasions are asking the same questions. But the liberals’ laments carry an extra sting, if only because they apparently viewed Obama as one of them. For instance, here’s Michael Cohen, a former State Department and Senate aide, who blogs at the Democratic-friendly National Security Network: “There has been no national debate, no presidential address, no authorization by Congress. It’s sort of insane actually. ... We have opened up a very messy can of worms here.”
Not all liberals feel this way. There’s a sizable pro-interventionist camp, which basically means that liberals are doing what they often do best: fighting with one another. Left-leaning blogs and online magazines have become free-fire zones. I’m doing my best to ingest the opposing arguments, at the risk of overdosing on earnestness.
Clearly a moral case can be made for what the pro-camp calls “doing the right thing,” intervening for humanitarian purposes to save the rebels and civilians whose lives have been threatened by that venerable thug, Moammar Gadhafi. Indeed, some on the left have long argued in favor of humanitarian interventions ― good wars for a high purpose, precisely what Bill Clinton failed to do in Rwanda. In the words of Shadi Hamid, a pro-war blogger at the National Security Network, going into Libya “allows us an opportunity to reaffirm America’s moral and political leadership.”
John Judis, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a longtime liberal commentator, demands to know, in the digital pages of the New Republic, whether the antiwar liberals would prefer “that the movement toward democratization in the Arab world ― which has spread from Tunisia to Bahrain, and now includes such unlikely locales as Syria ― be dealt an enormous setback, through the survival of one of the region’s most notorious autocrats? ... Barack Obama did the right thing in lending American support to this intervention.”
OK, that’s sort of persuasive. On the other hand, liberal policy analyst David Rieff (son of Susan Sontag) sneers so entertainingly. Liberal interventionists, he writes, are “besotted ... with fantasies of America’s inherent goodness. ... Of course, the catastrophe in Iraq was supposed to have sobered us, and made even the most ardent liberal interventionists realize that Pascal’s great phrase, ‘He who would act the angel, acts the beast,’ expresses the stark truth about what we self-flatteringly call humanitarian interventions. But, instead, here we go again.”
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Democrats are sending their usual mixed signals. Some on the Senate side are lauding Obama for what they call his “prudent course of action,” while signaling their willingness to retroactively rubber-stamp the mission via a Senate resolution. On the House side, however, Nancy Pelosi released a few rote sentences endorsing the mission, then added: “U.S. participation is strengthened by the president’s continued consultation with Congress.” In translation, here’s what that sentence means: “If Obama keeps stiffing us on this war, he’ll blow his own party apart.”
Liberals who are primed to fight Obama have plenty of ammo. When Obama was a candidate back in 2007, he explicitly stated: “The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military action in a situation that does not involve an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
Who could possibly argue today that Gadhafi’s civil war with the rebels is an actual or imminent threat to this nation? Actually, Obama tried to do that the other day. In a letter to Congress, he said that if Gadhafi’s behavior wasn’t curbed now, we risked “dangerous consequences to the national security interests of the United States” ― which strikes me as a bit of a stretch, sort of like trying to build a footbridge over the Grand Canyon.
In fact, even pro-war Democrats have qualms about what happens next. Bill Galston, a former Bill Clinton policy adviser, now writes that “the endgame is murky at best. There’s a non-trivial possibility that Gadhafi will be able to hang on to power in a substantial part of Libya. If so, we and our allies may have committed ourselves to protecting [civilians] against retribution for the indefinite future.”
And even if Gadhafi goes, who will spend the requisite billions on a democratic infrastructure, none of which currently exists? And who are these rebels, anyway? As Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, conceded the other day, the Libya mission is “a long fuse.”
Good grief, another long fuse? In the words of Bill Galston, “We’ve seen that movie before.”
By Dick Polman
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. ― Ed.