A bipartisan group of congressmen is filing a lawsuit against the president for pursuing an illegal war. The speaker of the House warned the Obama administration it would soon run up against a 90-day deadline, after which it will be “in violation of the War Powers Resolution unless it asks for and receives authorization from Congress or withdraws all U.S. troops and resources from the mission.” Who ever would have thought this would be happening to Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama?
The Obama administration has badly mishandled the domestic political aspects of the unpopular war in Libya. Back during the 2008 election, candidate Obama got a lot of traction out of making the distinction between what he called wars of choice, like the invasion of Iraq, and wars of necessity, like the ongoing counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. The former, he argued, were not of vital American interest and thus were inherently questionable, if not wholly invalid. It allowed him to take a hawkish line on the Afghan conflict while savaging the George W. Bush administration’s record in Iraq.
That bit of political opportunism has vanished from White House talking points, and for good reason. No one could argue that the intervention in Libya is a war of necessity. Mr. Obama did attempt to make the moral case for the war, invoking the intellectually fashionable but legally dubious rationale of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) Libya’s civilians. But this doctrine met a quick death at the hands of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who has killed more innocents in recent months than Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi did before the U.S. intervention but has faced only White House statements and ineffective sanctions. With respect to the repressed and bloodied masses in Syria, R2P is DOA (dead on arrival).
Intervention in Libya seemed like a good idea three months ago when it looked as if Col. Gadhafi was on the ropes. The White House was seduced by the short-war scenario: Drop a few bombs, help out the rebel proxy forces, ramp up diplomatic and financial pressure and - voila - you get regime change on the cheap (just don’t call it that). Risk of casualties was low, costs were deemed insignificant, and boots would be kept off the ground. According to the Obama administration, it wasn’t even a war.
Had the United States intervened in February, when the rebellion was nearing the gates of Tripoli and Col. Gadhafi was on the run, this plan might have had a chance of working. Mr. Obama, however, was in his characteristic pre-decision funk, assessing courses of action and awaiting a green light from the Arab League and the United Nations. In the month it took to assemble a consensus for action, Col. Gadhafi regained the upper hand. The best NATO has been able to accomplish in Libya has been to enforce a bloody stalemate.
This combination of waiting too long, using limited means and miscalculating the tenacity of the Gadhafi regime is what has brought the administration to this latest showdown with Congress. Mr. Obama must have calculated that he could afford to ignore the War Powers Resolution because there was no way they would face the 90-day threshold. The hitch is that decision-makers often overestimate the effectiveness of air campaigns in destabilizing dictators. This was the case in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and also the 78-day U.S.-led NATO blitz against Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, which resulted in the deaths of 2,500 civilians and rallied Milosevic’s people behind him.
It would have been a simple matter for Mr. Obama to have met his legal obligations throughout the course of the Libyan conflict. Instead, he chose to ignore, evade and equivocate. He now faces a domestic political crisis brought on by negligence to defend an increasingly costly and pointless war that has no upside for him even if it ends well. He should have listened to his own 2008 talking points.