Belmont Club

An Historic Resolution

The President explains the Libyan mission at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.  It is a confusing speech, but no passage is more perplexing than the one below. The key word has been highlighted.

Confronted by this brutal repression and a looming humanitarian crisis, I ordered warships into the Mediterranean. European allies declared their willingness to commit resources to stop the killing. The Libyan opposition and the Arab League appealed to the world to save lives in Libya. And so at my direction, America led an effort with our allies at the United Nations Security Council to pass a historic resolution that authorized a no-fly zone to stop the regime’s attacks from the air, and further authorized all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people.

… I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.

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Why did the speechwriter choose to term “historic” to characterize this particular UN resolution authorizing a “no-fly-zone”?  Other zones have been established in the past, in Iraq between 1991 to 2003 and in Bosnia between 1993 and 1995. What makes this different?  A clue may lie in the sources of authority that the President invokes. They are for the most part grounded in grants of authority from the “international community”. He mentions diplomatic conferences in London — “tomorrow, Secretary Clinton will go to London, where she will meet with the Libyan opposition and consult with more than 30 nations” — and the United Nations. Even the Libyan opposition gets mention on several occasions. But above all, he mentions himself, as if the entire authority to undertake this operation flowed directly from Barack Obama.

I ordered warships into the Mediterranean. … I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. … I said that America’s role would be limited; that we would not put ground troops into Libya … I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America. … As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than keeping this country safe. …

The speech is laden with references to either distant capitals or he, him and himself.  Congress, which actually has the Constitutional power to make war, is mentioned exactly once, almost as an afterthought. But once again the question is, why “historic”? A hint of why President may consider this a milestone is the casus of this non-belli. Force is being used not to overthrow an enemy king but to selectively alter one aspect of that king’s rule. Military force is being employed against a sovereign nation not in order to replace the sovereign, but change one facet of that sovereign’s rule. It’s like a line-item veto on the internal policies of other nations.

President Obama makes a great deal of the fact that he’s not out to topple Khadaffi. That was the mistake of Iraq, he says. No. Better to stop short and limit the obectives to negating one aspect of Mohammer’s rule with JDAMs, cruise missiles and other ordnance. What happens when the airplanes eventually leave and Khadaffi is still in place is not described. We are left to imagine that Khadaffi, suitably chastened, will go and lead a reformed life.

The task that I assigned our forces — to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a no-fly zone — carries with it a U.N. mandate and international support. It’s also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do. If we tried to overthrow Gadhafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.

To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq’s future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.

Whether that is at all likely the reader may determine for himself. But the object of policy as laid out in this confusing speech is apparently to tweak Khadaffi’s internal policy; to fine tune it until it comes into line with whatever standards the UN deems adequate, but not to topple the Duck of Death himself. But who sets these standards? What is the line beyond which America cannot hold back it’s hand? Who determines this? The international community, national interest? The beleaguered foreign opposition? I? The President offers to explain:

There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security — responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.

And herein lies the most pernicious paragraph of all. Military force against a foreign nation ceases to be war and becomes a kind of humanitarian assistance. It is on par with responding to natural disasters. It is not fundamentally different from delivering relief supplies to Japan. “War” is never once used in the entire 3,370 word speech except once — to refer to a possible “sectarian war” which the present kinetic military event is aimed at preventing. It’s amazing stuff from the man who pre-emptively won the Nobel Peace Prize.

It’s interesting to compare Obama’s speech with Ronald Reagan’s speech giving the reasons for an airstrike on Libya.  Obvious differences are linguistic. Reagan has no problem using terms like “enemy” or “terrorism” and very little shame at invoking the direct national interest nor in bluntly implying the attack was in retaliation for the murder of Americans. . The other difference is the clear invocation of American sovereignty as the fundamental basis for action. Reagan declares his intention to act  “alone if necessary”, unlike Obama for whom this seems to be a verboten word.  Stylistically the word “I” is not much in evidence in Reagan’s speech, nor do his hands gesture much. They were different men.

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