Andrew Sullivan's objections to President Obama's Libya speech are, it seems to me, flawed from the get-go, and then the flaw never lets loose. In his post, "The Imperial President," Sullivan opens with, "There are, it appears, only two reasons the US is going to war...." Later, "why should the US go to war over this?" Later still, "I can think of no worse basis for committing a country to war than...." Finally, "To launch a war on these grounds is to...."
A three-letter error committed four times in a mere eight paragraphs.
This is no war. I know what a war looks like and this isn't it, not for the U.S., anyway. The Bush administration and those who enabled that swindling mob of cutthroats knew not what a war looks like, and got precisely that. Are the enablers doomed to forever misread presidential motives and decisions?
For eight years it's been a fantasy of mine that those who earnestly encouraged and agitated for Bush's War could somehow be banned by Congressional statute from ever commenting again on a president's foreign policy decisions. Let the enablers dabble in matters of health care and muse about federal budgets and the like, but when it comes to all things foreign and military, one singular public comment, in print or on tape, could find them dangling from the nearest gibbet.
I detested Bush and Bush's War that much -- but, OK, I'm not really supportive of censorship -- and at the time, I equally detested their enablers. Any fool could have seen that the Bush administration was playing a shell game, and every fool should have seen it. But our stable of fools was overpopulated; many slipped through the cracks.
Now I sense a truly insulting even if minuscule sense of self-vindication on their part. Writes Sullivan: "At least Bush argued that Saddam posed a threat to the US. No one can seriously argue that Qaddafi poses such a threat." Yes that's the point, is it not? -- Sullivan's moral outrage is backward. Bush deliberately argued a passel of despicable lies, while no member of the Obama administration has even brushed against its predecessor's earth-shattering magnitudes of manufactured hysteria.
And once again a kind of vindication through catharsis peeps through. Sullivan continues, "A congressional vote is also important to rein in the imperial presidency that Obama has now taken to a greater height then even Bush." This time, you see, he is catching the rat in his corner and dutifully exposing him. It is however unfortunate for Sullivan that hyperbole doesn't help. What Obama is doing in Libya is authentically multilateral and internationally sanctioned. What Bush intended to do and ultimately did in Iraq was, let's be serious here, unilateral and he never gave an authentic damn about international approval. As for "reining in the imperial presidency," did Bush's Congressional vote really contribute to that goal? Or did it mock it?
Sullivan nonetheless makes a profoundly important point about presidential war (which this isn't) and its Congressional approval. The intervening problem is reality. For starters, Bush proved that most any president -- even Olympian bunglers like himself -- can rather easily obtain Congressional approval for hostile actions, if he so desires them. Second, when Sullivan writes that Obama's actions are a "presidential power-grab," by that I assume he means what is now a presidential tradition. Third -- and here I'm on shaky ground, because I can't read his mind -- if by Congressional approval Sullivan means the formality of a declaration of war, such a document isn't always a smart idea: prototypically imperial Truman, for example, wisely circumvented that Constitutional "option," since a formal declaration of war against North Korea could have triggered a series of Korean-Sino-Soviet treaty obligations, and presto, World War III. Finally, Sullivan provides his own counterargument: "[Obama] needs some Congressional support in an open-ended military commitment to ensure the protection of civilians in Libya." He sure does. He'll need money. And Congress can vote it or not.
Ezra Klein, being Ezra Klein, is more measured, which was of late a Sullivan characteristic (and in other arenas still is): "This post shouldn’t be read as a statement of opposition to military intervention in Libya. I don’t know enough to confidently make that call. But that’s precisely the problem: There’s very little information about what we are expecting to do or how much it will cost, but I suspect our commitment, once made, will actually be quite difficult to reverse." I tend to agree, with this addendum: I do not suspect that Obama will linger in Libya as he's lingering in Afghanistan. From the latter he desperately wants out but can't find an exit; from the former an early one is the answer -- which some close "friend" of Qaddafi's is likely to provide in the form of a .38 slug in Qaddafi's brain.
Here, though, to somewhat repeat myself, is the overarching point: I don't know how to change the real world, and neither does Obama. There are domestic politics in play, like it or not. There are diplomatic politics in play, like it or not. There are regional transformations to be pondered and weighed together and separately, like them or not. There are some bad friends to be protected and many good allies to be assuaged, like it or not. And there is the stupidity of ideology and uniform answers and the nimble flexibility of pragmatism and nuance, the first of which Obama rejects, the second of which he embraces.
Does that guarantee a splendid outcome? Of course not. But that's the real if regrettable world in which Obama operates, and most blogospheric commentators do not.