Presidents are supposed to have doctrines these days; it’s as much a part of the office as motorcades, military salutes and “Hail to the Chief.” I’m not sure why this is so: you’d think that bit about preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution in the oath of office would be doctrine enough. Actually, the presidential “doctrine” has, in recent decades, become the standard excuse for violating the oath and bypassing the Constitution, particularly in the conduct of foreign affairs.
Until now, there has been no Obama doctrine. This has distressed some, for whom the lack of a distinctive doctrine is a sartorial offense, like the absence of a key piece of clothing. Of course, presidential doctrines are usually based on some ringing declaration of principle, and if there is one thing the current White House occupant shies from like the plague, it is principle. For more than two years, members of the public have been wondering where he would finally draw a line in the sand as the opposition party rolled him on health care, jobs policy, deficit reduction and — well, you can fill in the rest.
The news is that President Obama has now finally drawn that line in the sand. Or sort of drawn it. It’s in Libya, where there is certainly enough of it. We’re fighting a war there, except that we aren’t. It’s not a war at all — no, just a humanitarian intervention. It’s not our doing, but the UN’s, NATO’s and whomever else’s. Yes, we are dropping bombs, but now, Britain and France are doing that, and we’re just supplying logistical support. We’re trying to save innocent lives (in the usual American way, by dropping bombs), but no, we aren’t favoring one side or the other in a civil conflict — except that we may do so if we can decide who the side we’re backing really is.
Got all that?
Timidity, conceptual incoherence and risk aversion are, of course, the hallmarks of this administration. These are bad faults, because they can lead to hasty and ill-considered actions from which retreat becomes difficult if not impossible. If anyone had thought out the consequences of military intervention in Libya at a time when half a dozen revolutions in far more strategically important places in the Middle East were burning out of control, there is no sign of it. As far as anyone can tell, Hillary Clinton and her fellow Valkyries, Samantha Power and Susan Rice, had nagged Obama about a humanitarian disaster in Benghazi if Colonel Gaddafi were to retake the city, and a worse public relations one if he did it in front of international press and cameras. Never mind that Gaddafi had promised amnesty to all those who voluntarily laid down their arms; it seems we could trust him on the question of dismantling his nuclear arms program but not about refraining from massacre, even with our entire Mediterranean fleet standing offshore. Never mind that Ali Abdullah Saleh and Bashir al-Assad were actually gunning down their subjects in Yemen and Syria, respectively, without attracting much attention from the White House. Cameras weren’t running there.
Instead, Obama declared that Gaddafi had to leave office because he had lost his “legitimacy” to rule. I’m not sure exactly what caused this mishap to occur, since Gaddafi has ruled Libya with an iron hand for 42 years and bloodily quelled several insurrections while keeping his legitimacy intact. When an American president says you have to go, though, you’d better go, because otherwise his own mystique might get ruffled.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, when asked whether vital American interests were at issue in Libya, answered in one word: “No.” But when Obama went on television to explain the Libyan war March 28 before one of those handpicked audiences he prefers to a heart-to-heart with the general public, he declared that vital interests were indeed involved. Apart from his polling numbers, he didn’t explain what they were (or why Gates hadn’t resigned), but only said that he had the right to wage war whenever American “interests” (vital or otherwise), “commerce” or “values” were at stake in his judgment.
That bit of trumpery, improvised on the spot to mask a policy embarrassment that has openly divided his administration, is now the Obama Doctrine. It goes further than anything George W. Bush ever said or did to usurp the war-making power. Obama did not consult with Congress before dropping bombs, as even Bush had; he informed a few legislators and sent Congress a two-page letter. He did not specify what American interests were at stake in Libya other than avoiding a potential massacre and keeping refugees from entering Tunisia and Egypt. There is no argument to be made from commerce, whatever that may mean. That leaves “values,” also to be determined since Libya has no civil society to speak of and no prospect of establishing a secular democracy, assuming anyone in the country might be interested in it.
Bad policy makes bad doctrine. Obama has engaged in a breathtaking executive overreach to cover an ad hoc military adventure based on nothing more than averting the possibility of bad press. For those who want to argue, as the President did in his speech, that he could not stand by idly while waiting to see whether a potential atrocity turned into a real one, the following reply might be made: one, no one has anointed the American president as the world’s savior, or annulled the constitutional requirement that Congress declare war; two, we are currently ignoring ongoing atrocities in a number of other African and Middle Eastern countries, in some cases more dire than anything that has yet transpired in Libya; and three, the cost of indefinitely prolonging the Libyan civil war may ultimately be far greater than having allowed Gaddafi to end it.
Obama showed the same disdain for Congress and the public in ramping up the war in Afghanistan. He may be a disastrously weak leader, but that, in the era of the imperial presidency, makes him no less arrogant and secretive a one. Weak emperors are the most dangerous kind of all.