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June 10, 2011 7:28 am

Obama’s Libyan Debacle Could Undercut U.S. Credibility Elsewhere

avatar by John Bolton


President Barack Obama talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao during the morning plenary session of the G-20 Pittsburgh Summit. Photo: Pete Souza.

Last Friday’s House of Representatives vote on President Obama’s Libya policy was characterized widely as reflecting bipartisan dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama’s failure to consult with Congress. There was indeed ample Capitol Hill disagreement with his handling of Libya — for a variety of reasons — but the real story is even more troubling.

Certainly, Mr. Obama has ignored the War Powers Act, but so have all his predecessors since its enactment, and rightly so, given the statute’s manifest unconstitutionality. Undoubtedly, Mr. Obama’s approach in Libya has grown increasingly incoherent even as NATO slowly comes closer to achieving the one legitimate U.S. national security interest involved: overthrowing Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

But what was most disturbing in the legislative maneuvering before Friday’s vote – and vastly underreported by the media – was the near total absence of Mr. Obama and his White House staff from the political field of battle. Not only is the president unable to conceal his general disinterest in national security policy, but neither could he be bothered to exercise political leadership within his own party at a critical moment.

Observers across the political spectrum concurred that the proposal offered by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, harshly criticizing Mr. Obama’s handling of Libya was very likely to pass the House. To the growing dismay of the Republican House leadership, Mr. Kucinich was gathering support from an unusual coalition of members dissatisfied with the president’s Libya policy, questioning its underlying objectives, its absence of an intelligible American strategy and its flawed implementation.

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Some Republicans disagreed with the Libya intervention, and others sought to show that the disarray in Mr. Obama’s Libya strategy demonstrated his general foreign-policy ineptitude. But the more fundamental problem was that House Democrats were defecting in droves from the White House, which was doing little or nothing to bring them back into line to support their president.
While passage of the Kucinich amendment would have had no operational effect because it surely would have died in the Senate, the political signal internationally would have been debilitating. Washington’s credibility and staying power would have been called immediately into question, and not just in Libya, but in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. That may be precisely what many congressional Democrats, increasingly vocal in their opposition to the war in Afghanistan, intended.

House Speaker John A. Boehner recognized the national security implications of a Kucinich victory. To head it off, Mr. Boehner crafted an alternative amendment, highly critical of Mr. Obama’s actions in Libya, to be sure, but not a text that would call into question U.S. resolve in Libya or elsewhere. Mr. Boehner’s holding action succeeded, thus buying time for the administration to get its act together on Libya. Nonetheless, Mr. Kucinich’s near success has already caused significant damage.

Mr. Obama’s incoherence on Libya exemplifies the failed approach to national security issues characterizing his administration from the outset. First, Mr. Obama’s objectives in Libya have been unclear and contradictory, and they have shifted over time. He started by declaring that the use of force was to protect Libyan civilians – not to topple Col. Gadhafi. Today, however, the obvious military objective is the removal of the Libyan leader but, apparently, not to admit it publicly, and to accomplish it slowly and ineffectively. Had Col. Gadhafi’s downfall been the initial, unambiguous objective and had Mr. Obama moved swiftly and decisively, our intervention likely would have been concluded successfully by now and we could be working to secure a pro-Western successor regime.

Second, Mr. Obama’s aversion to U.S. leadership and his decision to retreat behind the facade of NATO and the U.N. Security Council was clearly mistaken. No one was fooled about America’s continuing central role militarily, but the charade has impeded finishing the job. Mr. Obama’s weakness and indecisiveness continue to risk having Libya descend into anarchy or split into two states and undercut our credibility and commitment elsewhere.
Third, as last week’s near-debacle in the House showed regarding Libya, Mr. Obama seems unwilling to defend and explain his policies, implying a dangerous lack of confidence or interest in his own leadership. By inexplicably not attempting to rally fellow Democrats to support his actions in Libya, he risked a self-inflicted political wound that could have undermined our national security policy in many other international arenas. Even worse, particularly when it comes to impending decisions on U.S. force levels in Afghanistan, is the possibility that Mr. Obama or his White House staff actually agree more with the anti-war Democrats than with our war-fighting generals. It is as if Mr. Obama’s heart is not truly in the military effort in Afghanistan that he has commanded these past 2 1/2 years. Either explanation is deeply troubling.
Mr. Boehner and the House Republican leadership saved the Obama administration from itself last week and thereby did the country an important service. But this surely is a thankless task, one not easily replicable in the months ahead as the 2012 elections draw ever closer.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

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