Obama's 'Own Goal' on Libya

Things are hard enough for the Obama Administration when it has logic, the national interest, and Democratic party principles on its side. As, in my view, has been the case with its health-care reform effort, the campaign to limit the Bush tax cuts to the bottom 95% or so of the income distribution, the opposition to the "brave" and "serious" Ryan/Republican budget plan, the ongoing struggle over the debt ceiling, and so on.

Given those built-in obstacles, it has no need -- and can barely afford -- to invite needless trouble for itself, as it has with its inexplicably stubborn and short-sighted approach toward Congress on the Libya campaign.

Lawyers can argue, and evidently they did, about whether as a technical matter the Administration "had to" get Congressional approval for "hostilities" of this sort. But as a matter of politics in both the short-term and the broad historical sweep, of course the Administration absolutely had to involve the Congress. Short-term, by getting Congressional "buy-in" it would have buffered itself against the kind of rebuke it has now suffered. In the long historical view, it would have helped correct the drift toward unaccountable war-making power that candidate Obama himself was so eloquent in denouncing.

This was a problem foreseeable from the very start* -- more than three months ago, when we were told that this would be a campaign of "days, not weeks." Obama has so often proven himself to be the master of the long game that it is genuinely puzzling that he has stuck with this approach, rather than roping in Congress back in the days when most Republicans were criticizing him for taking too long to intervene.

Usually when his administration suffers a reverse, I blame the vicious nihilism of the opposition, or assume he has chosen the least bad of the dire options available. In this case, I cannot understand why he made and persists in what looks like a foolish mistake. Not the intervention itself, though I was skeptical of it. Rather, the refusal to engage Congress, which now leads to a predictable backlash.
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* For the record, I'm not embarrassed to have what I wrote on the day this all began re-examined, in light of subsequent events. Also for the record, "own goal" is of course a soccer-world term for mistakenly knocking the ball past your own goalie and scoring a point for the other team.

One more for the record: a critical look at the other side of the Libya debate shortly.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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