Photo: US Embassy New Zealand
The feature story that Michael Lewis just published about President Obama’s decision-making prior to the war in Libya includes a lot of details that inspire confidence in his leadership.By all accounts he’s intelligent, sober-minded, and inclined to seek out an array of perspectives.
And he’s frequently forced to make extraordinarily difficult tradeoffs with imperfect information.
I don’t envy his job.
But the article also raises serious questions about his honesty and regard for the constitution. Let’s take them in turn.
On March 28, 2011, Obama gave a televised address about Libya. It included this passage about his actions:
Confronted by this brutal repression and a looming humanitarian crisis, I ordered warships into the Mediterranean. European allies declared their willingness to commit resources to stop the killing. The Libyan opposition, and the Arab League, appealed to the world to save lives in Libya. At my direction, America led an effort with our allies at the United Nations Security Council to pass an historic Resolution that authorised a No-Fly Zone to stop the regime’s attacks from the air, and further authorised all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people.
In his telling, (a) America led the effort to establish the No-Fly Zone; and (b) the No-Fly Zone would stop the Libyan regime’s attacks from the air.
Compare these assertions to the inside account reported by Lewis (which was vetted by the White House prior to publication):
If you were president just then and you turned your television to some cable news channel you would have seen many Republican senators screaming at you to invade Libya and many Democratic congressmen hollering at you that you had no business putting American lives at risk in Libya. If you flipped over to the networks on March 7 you might have caught ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper saying to your press secretary, Jay Carney, “More than a thousand people have died, according to the United Nations. How many more people have to die before the United States decides, O.K., we’re going to take this one step of a no-fly zone?”
By March 13, Qaddafi appeared to be roughly two weeks from getting to Benghazi. On that day the French announced they were planning to introduce a resolution in the United Nations to use U.N. forces to secure the skies over Libya in order to prevent Libyan planes from flying. A “no-fly zone” this was called, and it forced Obama’s hand. The president had to decide whether to support the no-fly-zone resolution or not. At 4:10 p.m. on March 15 the White House held a meeting to discuss the issue. “Here is what we knew,” recalls Obama, by which he means here is what I knew. “We knew that Qaddafi was moving on Benghazi, and that his history was such that he could carry out a threat to kill tens of thousands of people. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time—somewhere between two days and two weeks. We knew they were moving faster than we originally anticipated. We knew that Europe was proposing a no-fly zone.”
That much had been in the news. One crucial piece of information had not.
“We knew that a no-fly zone would not save the people of Benghazi,” says Obama. “The no-fly zone was an expression of concern that didn’t really do anything.” European leaders wanted to create a no-fly zone to stop Qaddafi, but Qaddafi wasn’t flying. His army was racing across the North African desert in jeeps and tanks. Obama had to have wondered just how aware of this were these foreign leaders supposedly interested in the fate of these Libyan civilians. He didn’t know if they knew that a no-fly zone was pointless, but if they’d talked to any military leader for five minutes they would have.
And that was not all. “The last thing we knew,” he adds, “is that if you announced a no-fly zone and if it appeared feckless, there would be additional pressure for us to go further. As enthusiastic as France and Britain were about the no-fly zone, there was a danger that if we participated the U.S. would own the operation. Because we had the capacity.”
To summarize, (a) America did not lead the effort to establish a no-fly zone—it reluctantly signed on to the idea after its hand was forced by the French; (b) the no-fly zone wouldn’t stop the regime’s attacks because they weren’t coming from the air. It was, rather, a preamble to escalation.
Due to the nature of the Libya conflict, these misrepresentations weren’t nearly as consequential as, say, the way George W. Bush spoke out about weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war. It is nevertheless an example of the president deliberately misleading the American people in order to facilitate false impressions about foreign military actions that he finds convenient.
ZERO REGARD FOR CONGRESSIONAL APPROVAL
It’s long been established that Obama failed to secure a congressional declaration of war, as the constitution and Senator Obama’s understanding of it dictated; and that he violated the War Powers Resolution. It is nevertheless worth revisiting the subject given these new details about his thought process:
Obama insists that he still had not made up his mind what to do when he returned to the Situation Room—that he was still considering doing nothing at all. A million people in Benghazi were waiting to find out whether they would live or die, and he honestly did not know. There were things the Pentagon might have said to deter him, for instance. “If somebody had said to me that we could not take out their air defence without putting our fliers at risk in a significant way; if the level of risk for our military personnel had been ratcheted up—that might have changed my decision,” says Obama. “Or if I did not feel Sarkozy or Cameron were far enough out there to follow through. Or if I did not think we could get a U.N resolution passed.” Once again he polled the people in the room for their views. Of the principals only Susan Rice (enthusiastically) and Hillary Clinton (who would have settled for a no-fly zone) had the view that any sort of intervention made sense. “How are we going to explain to the American people why we’re in Libya,” asked William Daley, according to one of those present. “And Daley had a point: who gives a shit about Libya?”
From the president’s point of view there was a certain benefit in the indifference of the American public to whatever was happening in Libya. It enabled him to do, at least for a moment, pretty much whatever he wanted to do. Libya was the hole in the White House lawn.
Obama made his decision: push for the U.N resolution and effectively invade another Arab country. Of the choice not to intervene he says, “That’s not who we are,” by which he means that’s not who I am. The decision was extraordinarily personal. “No one in the Cabinet was for it,” says one witness. “There was no constituency for doing what he did.” Then Obama went upstairs to the Oval Office to call European heads of state and, as he puts it, “call their bluff.” Cameron first, then Sarkozy. It was three a.m. in Paris when he reached the French president, but Sarkozy insisted he was still awake. (“I’m a young man!”) In formal and stilted tones the European leaders committed to taking over after the initial bombing. The next morning Obama called Medvedev to make sure that the Russians would not block his U.N. resolution. There was no obvious reason why Russia should want to see Qaddafi murder a city of Libyans, but in the president’s foreign dealings the Russians play the role that Republicans currently more or less play in his domestic affairs. The Russians’ view of the world tends to be zero-sum: if an American president is for it, they are, by definition, against it. Obama thought that he had made more progress with the Russians than he had with the Republicans; Medvedev had come to trust him, he felt, and believed him when he said the United States had no intention of moving into Libya for the long term. A senior American official at the United Nations thought that perhaps the Russians let Obama have his resolution only because they thought it would end in disaster for the United States.
And it could have. All that exists for any president are the odds. On March 17 the U.N. gave Obama his resolution. The next day he flew to Brazil and was there on the 19th, when the bombing began. A group of Democrats in Congress issued a statement demanding Obama withdraw from Libya; Ohio Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich asked if Obama had just committed an impeachable offence. All sorts of people who had been hounding the president for his inaction now flipped and questioned the wisdom of action. A few days earlier Newt Gingrich, busy running for president, had said, “We don’t need the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening.” Four days after the bombing began, Gingrich went on the Today show to say he wouldn’t have intervened and was quoted on Politico as saying, “It is impossible to make sense of the standard of intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity.” The tone of the news coverage shifted dramatically, too. One day it was “Why aren’t you doing anything?” The next it was “What have you gotten us into?” As one White House staffer puts it, “All the people who had been demanding intervention went nuts after we intervened and said it was outrageous. That’s because the controversy machine is bigger than the reality machine.”
Put more succinctly, going to war in Libya was a close call; there are things various folks could have said to deter him; he ran the decision through executive branch and international channels; most people told him not to do it; but if Congress came into the picture at all, it wasn’t enough to merit mention in the retelling, and certainly not enough to follow the constitution and put the prospective war to a vote. The people’s representatives were excluded.
That remains a scandal.
And it is telling that Michael Lewis, one of America’s finest journalists, didn’t even ask Obama about failing to put the decision about Libya before Congress. He didn’t ask despite the plain language of the Constitution, Obama’s prior statements indicating he fully understood his legal obligations, and the fact that various members of Congress complained about his unilateral action. The imperial presidency is so well entrenched that a journalist like Lewis needn’t really question those things to feel as though he’s including all the crucial parts of the story about going to war.
That is quite a precedent Obama has set. And Mitt Romney is ready to exploit it if he wins. As he put it: “I can assure you if I’m president, the Iranians will have no question but that I will be willing to take military action if necessary to prevent them from becoming a nuclear threat to the world. I don’t believe at this stage, therefore, if I’m president that we need to have a war powers approval or special authorization for military force. The president has that capacity now.”
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