The president's speech was disturbingly empty. There are, it appears, only two reasons the US is going to war, without any Congressional vote, or any real public debate. The first is that the US cannot stand idly by while atrocities take place. Yet we have done nothing in Burma or the Congo and are actively supporting governments in Yemen and Bahrain that are doing almost exactly - if less noisily - what Qaddafi is doing. Obama made no attempt to reconcile these inconsistencies because, one suspects, there is no rational reconciliation to be made.
Secondly, the president argued that the ghastly violence in Libya is destabilizing the region, and threatening world peace. Really? More than Qaddafi's meddling throughout Africa for years? More than the brutal repression in Iran? And even if it is destabilizing, Libya is not, according to the Obama administration itself, a "vital national interest". So why should the US go to war over this?
None of this makes any sense, except as an emotional response to an emergency. I understand the emotions, and sympathize with the impulse to help. But I can think of no worse basis for committing a country to war than such emotional and moral anxiety. One fears this is Bill Clinton's attempt to assuage his conscience over Rwanda, rather than Obama's judicious attempt to navigate the Arab 1848. And as Obama said things like "Qaddafi has a choice," did you not hear echoes of Bush and Saddam?
At least Bush argued that Saddam posed a threat to the US. No one can seriously argue that Qaddafi poses such a threat. To launch a war on these grounds is to set a precedent that would require a kind of global power and reach that not even the most righteous neocons have pushed for. And I look forward to the actual Arab contributions to the military action. Presumably Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be involved. Or will it be what we now have - Qatar and, er, that's it? The Arab League has no real skin in this game. And one suspects, in the end, the narrative will be America bombing the Arabs again. How many civilians might the US kill in such an action? More civilians than we are currently killing in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Have we learned nothing?
The proper response to this presidential power-grab is a Congressional vote - as soon as possible.
That will reveal the factions that support this kind of return to the role of global policeman, and force the GOP to go on the record. I also look forward to the statements of the various Republican candidates in support of this president.
But it seems clear enough: exactly the same alliance that gave us Iraq is giving us Libya: the neocons who want to see the US military deployed across the globe in the defense of freedom and the liberal interventionists who believe that the US should intervene whenever atrocities are occurring. What these two groups have in common is an unrelenting focus on the reason for intervention along with indifference to the vast array of unintended consequences their moralism could lead us into. I do not doubt their good intentions and motives. No human being can easily watch a massacre and stand by. Yet we did so with Iran; and we are doing so in Yemen and Bahrain as we speak, and have done so for decades because we rightly make judgments based on more than feeling.
A congressional vote is also important to rein in the imperial presidency that Obama has now taken to a greater height then even Bush. No plane should lift off, no bomb released, until the Congress has voted. I don't see why Obama should oppose this. He needs some Congressional support in an open-ended military commitment to ensure the protection of civilians in Libya.
(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty.)