For the War Before He Was Against It

Rush Limbaugh's cynical dissent from Pres. Obama's ill-conceived military adventure.

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PRESIDENT OBAMA'S DECISION to wage war in Libya without Congressional authorization is the worst abuse of power we've seen in his administration, and its most glaring hypocrisy: this is a man who said as Senator that "The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." Though it is impossible to know now whether American involvement is going to be seen as a mistake, the pragmatic grounds for intervention are shaky too, especially for a country already waging two wars with an overstretched military and a huge budget deficit. 

You'd think I'd be happy to have the most influential voice in movement conservatism as a fellow Obama skeptic on this matter. But observing Rush Limbaugh these last several weeks has confirmed my suspicion that he is a malign force even when he's speaking out against others engaged in questionable behavior. His commentary has misled his audience, his prejudices have helped to distract the conservative movement from the stance it ought to be taking, and even his defenders will have a difficult time explaining away his latest buffoonery. Probably they'll choose to ignore it instead.

That's a shame. President Obama's behavior is the appropriate focus of ire for all of us who care about constitutional governance and the separation of powers in matters of war. But Limbaugh's commentary on Libya is also noteworthy as an example of how talk radio's charlatan streak hurts the United States and the conservative movement at moments when a better version of itself could serve as effective opposition to abuses of power. Anyone on the right keen to address this pathology should seize this opportunity - Limbaugh often discredits himself, but seldom on a subject of such import, or as glaringly as below. Even some of his fans will agree. 

THE AMERICAN PEOPLE now know that several weeks before being told anything about the course he would take on Libya, President Obama was covertly authorizing the CIA to aid the Libyan rebels, something about which his administration shamefully misled Americans. The exact time line remains unclear.

We also know that 7 March 2011, Limbaugh raised the subject of the president and his approach to Libya. Here is the analysis he broadcast:

This guy's got a chip on his shoulder about the country. He doesn't believe in exceptionalism about America, doesn't believe in America's greatness.  One of the reasons he's not doing anything in Libya with Khadafy -- has anybody got a clue? -- is he doesn't believe we have the moral authority to do anything other than mouth a bunch of words in the first place.

On 10 March 2011, Limbaugh doubled down:

We had a caller say, "Why doesn't Obama stop the bullying in the Middle East?"  I think it would help everybody to recall what Obama's opinion of this country is.  He thinks this country has been a bully in the world.  Look, you know it and I know it.  He believes that this country is a bully. It's one of the reasons why he's not doing anything in Libya.

Limbaugh is a man confident that his mistakes will drift off into the ether unnoticed. But this is a teachable moment for his listeners: every week on his show he leads you astray by making incorrect and ungrounded assertions about the interior lives of his ideological adversaries, and even when he turns out to be wrong other thinkers in the conservative movement are loath to call him on it.

On 15 March 2011, Limbaugh continued to misinform his audience. As Obama worked behind the scenes on behalf of the Libyan rebels, a course of action that eventually led the US to intervene militarily, the talk radio host remained ignorant, asserted that the fight against the Libyan leader was already lost, and insisted that the Obama administration was meeting with rebel leaders only to give them safe passage abroad:

Where is Obama?  I'm still amazed at how utterly out of it Obama is.  Where is he?  Has he checked out, is he sick?  Are his handlers busy in other parts of the world? Get this.  Mrs. Clinton has met with Libyan rebel leaders in Paris.  Now, it's safe to do that, I figure, now that the revolution against Khadafy is safely lost.  Khadafy's probably gonna win this or has won, so now it's safe to go meet with the rebel leaders, probably trying to arrange a place for 'em to live, Paris, Miami, LA. LA looks a lot like Libya, certain parts of it. I've been there. I have seen it.  You've got that going on.  I mean it's baffling.  His handlers are busy in other parts of the world and unable to give him direction?  What's going on?  He's acting like a child. 

On 17 March 2011, the talk radio host delved even deeper into faux-psychoanalysis:

Okay, so here's Libya.  He doesn't even seem to care much less do anything about it, and people chalk it up to traditional explanations.  "Well, he's looking at polling data, can't go in there because he criticized Bush, would look bad," all the standard conventional wisdom stuff of people trying to come up with the explanation.  That's not it.

It's very simple.  He doesn't look at America as the solution.  We're the problem.  He doesn't think the United States has any moral authority in places like Libya.  In fact, I would venture to say that if you get Obama to be honest, he'd tell you that there have been times in our history when we have been Libya.  We're no different.  He probably thinks, who are we telling Khadafy what to do?  Who are we to stand up for people around the world who want freedom?  Hell, the way Obama looks at it, we've been denying freedom to our own citizens for who knows how long.  I'm serious.  I think the explanations for Obama's inaction, indecision are quite simple. He just doesn't have the view of America as an exceptional place, as a solution to the world's problems.  He just doesn't.

A decent person would apologize for all this when it proved incorrect. With Limbaugh, it's like it never even happened. He respects neither himself nor his audience enough to correct the record. Or to maintain a decent amount of consistency: On 18 March 2011, newspapers reported that the previous day the US joined a UN Security Council Resolution that authorized military action against the Libyan regime. That same day, Limbaugh suddenly sounded a lot less hawkish:

Now, back to the Middle East for just a second, 'cause when I offered my theorem here that could it be the rebels in Libya are in fact the Muslim Brotherhood?  We know that they probably are supported by Al-Qaeda.  The Iranians are involved in supporting rebels in other parts of the Middle East.  My friend Andy McCarthy has raised this point.  Let's say that these rebels do represent the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran or Al-Qaeda and they are engaged in trying to get rid of Khadafy.  Are we doing their dirty work?  Now, this is something that has to be considered.  We had a very long, drawn out discussion yesterday about US national interests, why it takes incredibly deep, intelligent, responsible people to make these kinds of judgments.  We can topple the regime in Libya if we want to, but what would follow Khadafy?  If it's the Muslim Brotherhood, then make no mistake, we are advancing Sharia law, we are helping the advance of Sharia law, we are empowering Iran.

As American involvement escalated, Limbaugh explained to his listeners that "All of this is nothing more than one of these intellectual exercises to excuse Obama, give him a pass.  It really isn't war.  You know, Democrat presidents don't like using the US military," he continued, failing to mention the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama's forays into Pakistan, President Clinton's military campaign in the Balkans, Vietnam, Korea, World War II, or World War I. "If the truth be known, liberals actually are happier when the US military loses.  Liberals don't want military success. They don't think the world should be shaped that way.  Of course, ours is a world governed by the aggressive use of force.  Liberals hate that.  To them, this is a world governed by the aggressive use of speeches."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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