Tag: military action

White House: ‘We Have Never Been at War in Northafrica!’

Pardon the somewhat trite Orwell reference in the title to this post. But sometimes this administration’s wordgames make it hard to resist invoking our keenest analyst of politics and the English language.

Some months ago, the Obama team began telling us that the Libyan War wasn’t a war—it was a “kinetic military action.” (Go here to watch Defense Secretary Robert Gates try—and fail—to maintain a straight face selling that line to Katie Couric on 60 Minutes).

In April, the president’s Office of Legal Counsel made the (bogus) argument that the president hadn’t violated the War Powers Resolution because the WPR recognized his authority to engage in hostilities for at least 60 days without congressional approval.  We’re now coming up on 90.

Yesterday, in response to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) request, the president issued a new explanation for why he isn’t in violation of the WPR, which requires the president to terminate US engagement in “hostilities” after 60 days in the absence of congressional authorization. And it turns out that, per Obama, not only is the Libyan War not a “war,” what we’re doing in Libya—supporting, coordinating, and carrying out attacks—doesn’t even rise to the level of “hostilities.”

The president’s report states that he hasn’t violated the WPR, because “U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of ‘hostilities’ contemplated by the Resolution’s 60 day termination provision”:  they don’t “involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof.”

As Jack Goldsmith explains, “The Administration argues that once it starts firing missiles from drones it is no longer in ‘hostilities’ because U.S. troops suffer no danger of return fire.”  ”The implications here,” Goldsmith notes, “in a world of increasingly remote weapons, are large.”

I’ll say: this is an extraordinary argument: The president can rain down destruction via cruise missiles and robot death kites anywhere in the world. But unless an American airman might get hurt, we’re not engaged in “hostilities.”

Put aside the strange argument that acts of war don’t rise to the level of “hostilities.” Given that outrage over the illegal bombing of Cambodia was part of the backdrop to the WPR’s passage, it would have been pretty strange if the Resolution’s drafters thought presidential warmaking was A-OK, so long as you did it from a great height.

As legal arguments go, this is the national security law equivalent of the Clinton perjury defense. It’s the type of thing that gives lawyers an even worse name. Or maybe law professors, because, speaking of Bill Clinton, Obama’s the second former constitutional law professor in a row to violate the War Powers Resolution.

And yet, Obama continues to insist he’s in full compliance with the WPR, and he has no objection to the resolution on constitutional grounds.

God help me, I think I just felt a twinge of nostalgia for John Yoo.  Say what you will about the legal architect of Bush’s “Terror Presidency,” at least he had the courage of his bizarre convictions. When the statutes couldn’t be tortured into complete submission, Yoo would make the case that—whatever the law said—the president had the constitutional power to do as he pleased.  That’s clearly what Obama believes as well, but you’re not going to catch him admitting it.

Obama’s Power Problem, and Ours

I have an op-ed in Politico today that explores what I call President Obama’s power problem, a common theme in my work (my book is now in a Kindle edition!).

Simply stated, when a country has more military power than it needs to defend itself and its core interests, it will expand its definition of “the national interest.” This will, in turn, lead it to intervene militarily in places and disputes that have no connection to the country’s security. That certainly has been the pattern for the United States for at least the last two decades. The problem is nicely encapsulated in the famous exchange between Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, which Powell recounted in his memoir.

Madeleine Albright, our ambassador to the UN, asked me in frustration “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.

This brings us to Libya, and to a new group of people who likely said something similar to Mike Mullen and Bob Gates. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disagreements with Gates were on public display last Sunday, but reports of a whisper campaign within the administration, in which Clinton and her advisers were frustrated by President Obama’s unwillingness to deploy the U.S. military on yet another mission, have been flying around for weeks.

In the end, the Valkyries got their war. Clinton’s advice, along with that of Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who have all loudly called for U.S. military intervention in the past, convinced President Obama to override Gates and Mullen’s objections, and to launch what Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman aptly characterized yesterday as “just the most muddled definition of an operation probably in U.S. military history.” Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recently returned to Princeton after a stint at State’s policy planning staff, was sniping from the sidelines.  Pressure from our European allies, especially France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron in the UK, also appears to have been decisive.

This is not so unique a set of circumstance, however, as I discussed with Cato Audio’s Caleb Brown a few days ago. Near the end of the interview, I focused on the particular challenges that confront the leader of a country whose military capabilities seem almost limitless:

I agree that it is difficult, it is very difficult, for the President of the United States to resist the impulse to intervene when he has people, many people, calling on him to do something. But it’s precisely because we have so much power, and because the temptation to use it is almost overwhelming, that a president has to have extraordinary discipline and say: “No. I was elected by the people of the United States to protect them, to keep this country safe and security, and if a mission does not advance those ends I will not do it.”

That is not the counsel of despair, and the counsel of inaction. On the contrary, there are many other countries, especially those in Libya’s immediate neighborhood, that have both a compelling  national security rationale and a moral rationale [to intervene]. And it’s precisely the combination of those factors that we, the United States, should have encouraged in the past, and we could have encouraged in this particular case. Instead, other countries waited for the United States to act,…

Caleb Brown, Cato Audio: And just the possibility the U.S. will act probably puts a lot of countries on the sideline…

Me: That’s correct…. Because of the expectation that the United States will act, it causes other people to wait it out. And sometimes, tragically, they wait it out too long. Because, again, the United States does not always intervene. There are a number of cases where we have not. And I fear that we have set up a system where, if the United States doesn’t act, nothing gets done, and I don’t think that’s the right approach. I think there are alternatives that will use other countries’ legitimate security interests to advance humanitarian ends.

You can listen to the whole clip here.

They Were for the War before They Were Against It

Doyle McManus at the Los Angeles Times highlights the zigging and zagging of some leading Republican presidential contenders when it comes to war with Libya.

Particularly noteworthy is Newt Gingrich. “Two weeks ago,” McManus writes: 

the former House speaker and possible presidential candidate denounced Obama for not intervening forcefully against Kadafi.

“This is a moment to get rid of [Kadafi],” he urged. “Do it. Get it over with.”

Then Obama intervened in Libya. Was Gingrich pleased?

“It is impossible to make sense of the standard for intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity,” Gingrich said Sunday. “Iran and North Korea are vastly bigger threats…. There are a lot of bad dictators doing bad things.”

That sounded like a flip-flop, so I asked Gingrich what he meant. He responded with an e-mail: “The only rational purpose for an intervention is to replace Kadafi. That is what the president called for on March 3, and after that statement anything less is a defeat for the United States.”

Actually, Gingrich was wrong both before and after Obama (inexplicably) chose to follow his advice. The only rational purpose for the use of the U.S. military is to advance U.S. national security. The Libya operation has never been justified on those grounds – it is a humanitarian mission to protect civilians – and it might actually make a minor and manageable problem far worse.

Qaddafi is a clown and thug; and no one will shed a tear if and when he leaves Libya – feet first or otherwise. But declaring Qaddafi’s ouster to be a suddenly vital U.S. interest, when a few mere months ago he was our supposed great ally in the fight against al Qaeda, epitomizes absurdity. If nothing else, Gingrich and other boosters of military action in Libya should have pondered – before we risked the lives of our troops, and committed the country to a potentially open-ended mission – whether some of the vaunted rebels might, in fact, be even worse than Qaddafi.

But I guess that never occurred to them.

Libya, Limited Government, and Imperfect Duties

Glenn Greenwald observes that we’re hearing a familiar false dilemma from advocates of intervention in Libya—the same one that was trotted out so frequently in the run-up to the war in Iraq: Either you support American military action, or you must be indifferent to the suffering of civilians under Qadaffi. Bracket for a moment the obvious empirical questions about the general efficacy of bombs as reliable means of alleviating suffering. What I find striking is the background assumption that whether the United States military has a role to play here is taken to be a simple function of how much we care about other people’s suffering. One obvious answer is that caring or not caring simply doesn’t come into it: That the function of the U.S. military is to protect the vital interests of the United States, and that it is for this specific purpose that billions of tax dollars are extracted from American citizens, and for which young men and women have volunteered to risk their lives. It is not a general-purpose pool of resources to be drawn on for promoting desirable outcomes around the world.

A parallel argument is quite familiar on the domestic front, however. Pick any morally unattractive outcome or situation, and you will find someone ready to argue that if the federal government plausibly could do something to remedy it, then anyone who denies the federal government should act must simply be indifferent to the problem. My sense is that many more people tend to find this sort of argument convincing in domestic affairs precisely because we seem to have effectively abandoned the conception of the federal government as an entity with clear and defined powers and purposes. We debate whether a particular program will be effective or worth the cost, but over the course of the 20th century, the notion that such debates should be limited to enumerated government functions largely fell out of fashion. Most people—or at least most public intellectuals and policy advocates—now seem to think of Congress as a kind of all-purpose problem solving committee. And I can’t help but suspect that the two are linked. Duties and obligations may be specific, but morality is universal: Other things equal, the suffering of a person in Lebanon counts just as much as that of a person in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Once we abandon the idea of a limited government with defined powers—justified by reference to a narrow set of functions specified in advance—and instead see it as imbued with a general mandate to do good, it’s much harder for a moral cosmopolitan to resist making the scope of that mandate global, at least in principle.

An analogy with private ethics seems instructive. Most people would probably agree that the well-off have some obligation—as a matter of personal morality, if not “social justice”—to use some portion of their wealth to help the less fortunate. But with respect to humanity in general, we generally treat this as an “imperfect duty,” to use Kant’s phrase. That is, someone might well say: “You really are so rich that you ought to be giving a larger percentage of your income to charity.” But as we scarcely expect anyone to contribute to every worthy cause, any dispute here would properly be about what is an adequate total amount to give, and what general priorities that giving should follow. Someone who gives far less than they could easily afford might be charged with “not caring enough about the badly-off” in general, but it would be bizarre to charge someone with indifference to the plight of Steve in Albuquerque if their (otherwise adequate, by whatever standard you accept) charitable giving did not include an earmark to help poor Steve with his medical bills. Steve’s friends and relatives might owe him a specific duty of assistance, but for everyone else, the only legitimate question is whether they’re doing as much as ethics requires on the whole. With that in mind, The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait seems to me to be rather missing the point in this blog post:

Why intervene in Libya and not elsewhere is a question that needs to be asked. But it’s not a question that needs to be asked to determine the wisdom of intervening in Libya. Should we also spend more money to prevent malaria? Yes, we should. But I see zero reason to believe that not intervening in Libya would lead to an increase in in American assistance to prevent malaria.

Why not intervene in Burma or Yemen or elsewhere? I would say the answer is prudential: for various political, geographic, and military reasons, the United States has the chance to prevent slaughter in Libya at reasonable cost, and does not have the chance to do so in Burma.

But suppose there’s no answer whatsoever. Does it matter? If it were the 1990s, and the Clinton administration were contemplating an expansion of children’s health insurance, would it be important to determine exactly why we’re covering uninsured children but not uninsured adults? No. The question is whether this particular policy intervention is likely to succeed or fail.

Chait is surely right that our failure to intervene in other cases, or to prevent global suffering by other means, doesn’t exactly prove anything about this case. Perhaps those other cases are different, for either practical or moral reasons, or perhaps we simply fail to act in many cases where we ought to. But he’s surely wrong—and I think tellingly wrong—to reject the implicit demand for a general principle to govern those interventions, whether military or otherwise.

Stipulate, purely for the sake of argument, that Americans do have some collective obligation to prevent suffering elsewhere in the world, and that this obligation is properly met, at least in part, via government. (Perhaps because governments are uniquely able to remedy certain kinds of suffering—such as those requiring the mobilization of a military.) Given that we have finite resources, surely the worst possible way to go about this is by making a series of ad hoc judgments about particular cases—the “how much do I care about Steve?” method. The refusal to consider whatever global duty we might have holistically is precisely what leads to irrational allocations—like spending billions to protect civilians and rebel troops in Libya when many more lives would be saved (again, let’s suppose for the sake of argument) by far less costly malaria eradication efforts. Unless there’s an argument that we have some specific or special obligation to people in Libya—and I certainly haven’t seen it—then any claim about our obligation to intervene in this case is, necessarily, just a specific application of some broader principle about our obligation to alleviate global suffering generally. The suggestion that we ought to evaluate this case in a vacuum, then, starts to seem awfully strange, because if we are ever going to intervene for strictly humanitarian reasons (rather than to protect vital security interests), then the standard for when to do so has to be, in part, a function of the aggregate demands whatever standard we pick would place on our limited resources.

Reading between the lines slightly, here’s what I suspect is behind Chait’s rejection of a more holistic approach. (I hate putting words in people’s mouths, and encourage people to read the full post and judge for themselves, but I don’t think I’m stretching very far here.) Politically, we seem to be rather perversely amenable to pursuing putative humanitarian goals when this entails dropping bombs at massive cost—at least in cases that trigger our collective attention for whatever reason—than we are to more prosaic (and less lethal) interventions, even when these save more lives at lower cost. Chait infers—perhaps correctly—that Americans would reject any general, cost/benefit sensitive principle of intervention that could possibly justify action in this instance. Since Chait thinks Americans aren’t sufficiently willing to risk lives and money on behalf of foreigners as a general matter, but will occasionally go along with an insanely expensive intervention in particular stirring cases, he’d rather not have to generalize explicitly, because the ad hoc approach gets us closer to the level of assistance he thinks is morally required than any politically viable neutral rule.

Those of us who cherish the principle of limited government sometimes conflate it with our specific conception of what the limits should be—we have in mind a particular set of functions that government is uniquely qualified to take on, for one reason or another. But implicit in these last few paragraphs, I think, is a distinct and more abstract argument rooted in a particular ideal of democratic deliberation—one that is in theory equally compatible with any number of different views about the proper role and functions of government. We all know that individuals often make quite different choices on a case-by-case basis than when they formulate general rules of action based on a longer view. We routinely make meta-choices designed to prevent ourselves from making micro-choices not conducive to our interests in the aggregate: We throw out the smokes and the sweets in the cupboard, and even install software that keeps us from surfing the Internet when we’re trying to get work done. Faced with a Twinkie or a hilarious YouTube clip, we may predict that we will often make choices that, when they’re all added up, conflict with our other long-term goals. Marketers, by contrast, often try to induce us to make snap decisions or impulse purchases when, in a cool hour of deliberation, we’d conclude their product isn’t the best use of our money.

Following a diet or a budget is one form of choice; so is the impulse buy or the fast food snack. The meta-choice about which kind of choice to make depends on a judgement about which best comports with one’s ideal of rational autonomy given the facts of human psychology. A marketer who hopes to trigger an impulse buy can legitimately say he’s giving consumers what they choose, but there’s a clear sense in which someone acting in accordance with a general rule, formulated with a view to long-term tradeoffs, often chooses in a more deliberative and fully autonomous fashion than someone who does what seems most appealing in each case unfettered by such rules.

Something analogous, I want to suggest, can be said about democratic deliberation. A polity can establish broad and general principles specifying the conditions under which government may or should act, or it can vote on individual policies and programs on a case-by-case basis (with many gradations in between, of course). Both are clearly in some sense “democratic”; the proper balance between them will depend in part on one’s theory about how democratic deliberation confers legitimacy, just as the weight an individual gives to different types of “choices” will turn on a view about the nature of rational autonomy. Limited government is sometimes painted as constraint on democracy—an obstacle to what a majority might favor at a particular time. But political elites, like marketers, understand how the frame and scope of a choice may radically affect what the very same person or polity would choose—and claims by either that only one counts as true “choice” or “democracy” ought to be viewed with due skepticism.