Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Musings on the Obama Doctrine

Last night, President Obama addressed the nation in the hope of clearing up both our role in Libya's civil war and the principles guiding the President concerning foreign policy. Coming up with a coherent foreign policy is difficult to an extreme; I am yet to find a truly convincing theory of international relations. Most tend to gloss over certain problems in order to purchase support for a few clearly stated ideas. Obama's doctrine (or so it is being called) lacks the clearly stated ideas but failed to prevent the glossing over of injustices or incorrect facts. In fact, it is difficult to really nail down just what it is the President even meant last night, but since he is in the driver's seat for the next two years, it is important to parse out what information we can.

The text of his speech can be found here.

Should the President be initiation conflicts without Congressional approval?

For starters, Obama has yet to gain approval for this use of force from Congress. While many liberals disliked the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nobody can deny that President George W. Bush received Congressional approval prior to the initiation of hostilities. There is a great deal of legal entanglement concerning the use of force, particularly with the War Powers Resolution, but even then a strong case can be made that Obama should have Congressional approval first. That Act gives the President the use of force under three circumstances:

1. A declaration of war. That does not exist in this case.
2. Specific statutory authorization. This is hard to distinguish from a declaration of war; regardless, it also does not exist in this case.
3. A national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces. An extremely weak case could be made concerning attacks on our troops in the 1980's, but this argument has not been put forth. The United States is not under attack.

Simply put, Obama has no real authorization to launch these attacks without Congressional approval. As a general rule of thumb, unless we are being attacked, Congressional approval should be required before hostilities are launched against another nation. The President did not address this point last night, a very disturbing sign.

Can other nations or the United Nations send our forces into war?

The President largely relied on the United Nations Security Council's Resolution 1973 to provide justification for the use of force. The United Nations is a questionable source of authority; until recently, Libya was on its Human Rights Council. Regardless, the right to use force resides with the federal government of the United States, not with the United Nations Security Council. Only a Constitutional Amendment may change that fact. We may use force at our discretion with or without United Nations approval.

Furthermore, the argument that N.A.T.O. taking over leadership improves America's position is ridiculous. America will provide the men, the muscle, and the money, but generals from other nations will lead it. Having the leadership is not the burden; paying for the muscle work is. The former is shared, the latter is not, and honestly cannot be, as most nations lack the ability to provide the hardware and soldiers for a sustained campaign beyond their own borders.

When may the United States overthrow dictators?

The President lacked clarity on this point. During his speech, he said

It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.

Obviously, we need some criteria. No such criteria are really put forth, however, that are consistent with Obama's past actions as President. There is the prospect of violence and civilian casualties, but the same can be said of Iran in 2009. There is supposedly a popular uprising in Libya; there was just as much evidence for one in Iran in 2009 and Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria today, yet we have not intervened there. We have an "international mandate" that includes opposition from Russia and China. A broad coalition, but not one nearly as broad as that which invaded Iraq in 2003 (often derided as "going it alone").

With much of the Middle East in turmoil, the question Americans want answer is: why are we intervening in Libya but not Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, or Iran?

And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.
Unless we are talking about Iran. Or Bahrain. Or Yemen. Or Syria. The goal is noble enough, but our President has not refused to wait for such images before.

Where does this end?

This is the big question. We have a confused strategy of seeking Qaddafi's removal but tying our hands behind our backs concerning the means of doing so. Qaddafi will not leave voluntarily, the rebels cannot remove him by force, and we will not do so. This leads to a permanent stalemate. The longer the stalemate exists with us as Qaddafi's active enemies, the longer he has to strike back at us via unconventional warfare or terrorism. That leads to the very real risk of a ground war we cannot afford right now. It is not certain that the rebels will win, even with N.A.T.O. air cover.

Even if the rebels topple Qaddafi, there is hardly anything we can do to plan for the aftermath. Yes, the rather unknown council semi-leading the rebels could claim control, but there is no certainty that they could keep it or prevent infighting from splintering them and leading Libya into a protracted civil war. There are people loyal to Qaddafi; will we protect those citizens should rebel forces attack them?

Make up your mind.

The President attempted to lay out a clear plan to let the world know when the United States will intervene even if it is not directly threatened. He failed miserably in that attempt. Furthermore, our commitment and goals in this particular case remain vague. If we wish to help the rebels, air strikes alone are insufficient; Qaddafi must go. But we will supposedly be bound by the U.N. resolution limiting our action to protecting civilians. Does creating a protracted civil war protect civilians? Spending ten days waiting while Qaddafi's forces overran the rebels and then suddenly striking Libyan forces out of the clear blue is hardly decisive leadership.

Creating a consistent policy for the use of force is insanely difficult and no ideology, left, right, or otherwise, should pretend it is not so. While the first two sections I wrote are rather limited to the President's theory, the following two certainly could (and were) applied to the neoconservative efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The benefit of previous policies was a clear cut goal that provided some benefit despite the other problems inherent in the theory. President Obama's plan lacks these clear benefits but maintains the inconsistencies; if it is to be considered a theory at all, it is one that should be rejected.

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