I wonder how many liberals would've voted for Barack Obama if he had stumped the nation with this campaign vow: "We're fighting two wars, but as president I pledge to change that policy by ordering up a third. And I will do so by exercising the prerogatives of the imperial presidency. George W. Bush felt it was necessary to get congressional authorization for the war in Iraq, but I will do him one better. When I launch our third intervention, I pledge to inform the members of Congress only when it's too late for them to do anything about it. Thank you very much!"
But that’s where we are today, in the wake of the American-led air strikes in Libya, amid strong indications – I know this will come as a shock – that the mission, which is being conducted in what a top American military official calls “an extremely complex and difficult environment,” may take a wee bit longer than originally envisioned. Which explains the current liberal angst. Some on the left are muttering about Obama in rhetorical language previously reserved for the likes of Bush and Richard Nixon.
When liberal California Congressman Mike Honda contended the other day that Obama had “leveled a devastating blow to our legislative-executive checks and balances,” and demanded that the president conduct “a serious conversation in Congress before new countries are incautiously invaded and before America’s legislative branch is eviscerated further,” I was transported back in time to 1970, when bypassed congressional Democrats were infuriated by Nixon’s peremptory invasion of Cambodia.
Liberals never anticipated that they would be assailing Obama for rushing to war. But that’s the subtext of the statement released Wednesday by a quartet of House lefties: “We have serious concerns about whether or not an effective and thorough case for military intervention in Libya was made. Too many questions remain. What is our responsibility now? Do we own the situation in Libya and for how long? Where does this dramatic acceleration of military intervention end?”
Actually, Americans of all ideological persuasions are asking the same questions. But the liberals’ laments carry an extra sting, if only because they apparently viewed Obama as one of them. For instance, here’s Michael Cohen, a former State Department and Senate aide, who blogs at the Democratic-friendly National Security Network: “There has been no national debate, no presidential address, no authorization by Congress. It’s sort of insane actually. ... We have opened up a very messy can of worms here.”
Not all liberals feel this way. There’s a sizable pro-interventionist camp, which basically means that liberals are doing what they often do best: fighting with one another. Left-leaning blogs and online magazines have become free-fire zones. I’m doing my best to ingest the opposing arguments, at the risk of overdosing on earnestness.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats are sending their usual mixed signals. Some on the Senate side are lauding Obama for what they call his “prudent course of action,” while signaling their willingness to retroactively rubber-stamp the mission via a Senate resolution. On the House side, however, Nancy Pelosi released a few rote sentences endorsing the mission, then added: “U.S. participation is strengthened by the president’s continued consultation with Congress.” In translation, here’s what that sentence means: “If Obama keeps stiffing us on this war, he’ll blow his own party apart.”
Even pro-war Democrats have qualms about what happens next. Bill Galston, a former Bill Clinton policy adviser, now writes that “the endgame is murky at best. There’s a nontrivial possibility that Gadhafi will be able to hang on to power in a substantial part of Libya. If so, we and our allies may have committed ourselves to protecting ‘civilians’ against retribution for the indefinite future.”
And even if Gadhafi goes, who will spend the requisite billions on a democratic infrastructure, none of which currently exists? And who are these rebels, anyway? As Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, conceded the other day, the Libya mission is “a long fuse.”
Good grief, another long fuse? In the words of Bill Galston, “We’ve seen that movie before.”
Dick Polman, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.