Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Desert Bluff

     The United Nations’ military action against Libya has halted a vicious terrorist-dictator. For now, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces have lost the momentum—and command of the air—in the weeks-old conflict with Libyan rebels. While we hope this is the start of the final movement in Gaddafi’s discordant symphony, we also note it may be the beginning of a new respect for the Obama administration in foreign policy. The initial moves of the administration did not appear in the best light, and we wrote last month to encourage an interventionist policy in Libya. Now, however, the administration has turned the initial delay into a foreign policy success. Whether the matter will remain so is unclear, but there are some reasons for hope.

     Consider: After delaying until asked by the Libyan rebels, the Arab League, and the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. now occupies an unimpeachable position in imposing military force. Yes, international critics have still denounced the U.N. action (which is overwhelmingly an American operation). But they cannot get much traction now, and even the Russian leadership is unable to agree on opposing the coalition. Internally, only the ideologically pure pacifists on the Left have worked up enough steam to chug along the opposite track to the administration. Ralph Nader, for instance, remains insulting and irrelevant in calling the president’s actions war crimes. He is, as usual, an outlier, though had the administration not waited for U.N. blessing Nader would have had much more company. So, the delay served political purposes.

     It is likely the delay also served military purposes, as the public protestations of how difficult the job would be covered a short time of vigorous preparation. While the world (and perhaps Gaddafi) assimilated the frank reservations expressed by some in the Defense Department, the military quietly positioned assets and planned missions so that within hours of the Security Council vote Gaddafi found his troops essentially paralyzed. So, the cautionary statements by Secretary Gates may very well have been a highly refined form of psychological operations.

     If so, then the administration’s claim of not targeting Gaddafi personally may also be a bluff in the desert. Having repeatedly assured the world that the U.S. does not have Gaddafi on the target list, administration officials may have encouraged him to drop his guard. Not that U.S. officials need be lying. Rather, they may be speaking a tightly written truth: Gaddafi is not on the American target list, but of course that says nothing about the French or the British. Indeed, just yesterday the British struck Gaddafi’s compound, in what may have been an attempt at decapitating the regime.

     Does this reading of events give the administration too much credit for subtlety? Perhaps. But it is reassuring to think such credit could be deserved. Besides, conservatives have often enough proclaimed that politics is supposed to stop at the edge of the ocean. When American forces are committed overseas, American politicians and pundits are supposed to make up their quarrels and support the president. In light of such a view, we would be silent if we disagreed with the administration. As it stands, we are prepared to entertain a new respect for the administration’s facility with foreign affairs.


  1. A little coalition building goes a long way. The reluctance to go to war is genuine for all of us, including those who are calling for intervention. As long as we don't now take over the war rather than let the rebels win mostly on their own, we'll be on the higher end of the downside. The difference between the two Bushes was that the first one wore a UN cloak. Bravo to Obama for getting that right -- assuming it was facility. The fortuitous surprise was the Arab League call. Gadhafi should have seen the writing on the wall right then and left town.

    I've always thought Obama has been underestimated on political acumen. He wins a lot of battles in the teeth of objections and pulls rabbits out when people say it's an empty hat. When he gets people into a backroom, they all come out doing what he says. And it all appears to be moral suasion, not LBJ style arm-twisting. Amazing.

  2. I am reserving judgment for the moment, but I am once again ticked that a president failed to follow constitutional dictates in the matter.

    How's this for irony:

    “December 20, 2007

    "The president does not have the 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."

    -Senator Barack H. Obama”

    For once I find myself in agreement with Senator Obama.

  3. Well, I stayed away from the whole war powers issue, in part because most presidents in the past several decades have vigorously asserted their authority to send in the troops. I believe they've done so under a reading of Article II that I find suspect.

    While I've not done any research on the issue, I've always been a little skeptical of Executive Branch apologists who claim that the president's powers as commander-in-chief mean that he doesn't need Congressional approval to go to war. If that were true, then why would Congress retain an explicit power to declare war? It only makes sense if the Congress decides whom to fight and the president only then decides how to fight. But I know mine is a minority opinion.