Political Hay

Obama Goes to War

Indecisiveness meets interventionism. But don't call it a dumb war.

By 3.21.11

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It was as if the Sunday morning talk shows were being broadcast this week from an alternate dimension. There was Paul Wolfowitz defending the president from George Will's criticisms. President Obama, that is, not George W. Bush. That would be the same Paul Wolfowitz Obama once denounced as an "arm-chair, weekend warrior" shoving his "ideological agendas down our throats." As Jim Traficant would say, "Beam me up, Scotty."

Barack Obama sits in the Oval Office today because he opposed the Iraq war. Like most of his accomplishments, Obama acquired his antiwar record verbally. While Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer, and John Kerry were in Congress voting for the invasion, Obama was a candidate for office giving a speech.

What a speech it was. Obama, the Reinhold Niebuhr of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, opened by saying he was "not opposed to war in all circumstances." "What I am opposed to is a dumb war," he elaborated. "What I'm opposed to is a rash war." A sentence later the future president took his swing at Wolfowitz, throwing in Richard Perle and Karl Rove to keep him company.

Obama allowed that Saddam Hussein was a "brutal man," a "ruthless man," a "man who butchers his own people to secure his own power," a "bad guy" even. But that did not make Saddam's ramshackle military capability a threat to the United States, Obama argued, and thus did not offer sufficient grounds for war on a country that had not attacked us.

How then can these Nobel Peace prize-winning words be squared with the president's decision to bomb Libya? The case for military intervention was based entirely on Muammar Gaddafi being a ruthless man, a bad guy, a man who threatened to butcher his own people to secure his own power. This administration isn't exactly renowned for its outrage over Lockerbie and Gaddafi's current military might makes Saddam look like a superpower.

What is different, apparently, is that we've brought more friends along. The no-fly zone is sufficiently multilateral for the president's tastes, bearing the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council. Yet another relevant legislative body rather conspicuously did not authorize Obama's actions -- our own Congress.

Here is candidate Obama on the unconstitutionality of presidential wars:"The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." Any Republican, hawk or dove, not protesting the lack of congressional authorization must have skipped the day where the House read the Constitution. The Framers were pretty specific about which branch of government has the power to declare war.

Large parts of Obama's base have proved equally malleable on questions of war and peace. This is not surprising. The left uses opposition to unpopular wars to recruit supporters the same way young men use poetry and cute dogs to pick up girls. Once in power, liberals discard their antiwar convictions as quickly as a successful Don Juan ditches Fido and Sylvia Plath.

But just in case any liberal activists start to feel queasy about Obama's bomb-dropping, the president predictably hedges. Having already dithered past the point some analysts thought the no-fly zone would be most effective, he assures us that we won't be there long. We're not really committed to regime change or a full-scale invasion. Defense Secretary Robert Gates vows to hand off Libya -- probably to France and Britain -- "in a matter of days."

We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty -- as long as our stay will be shorter than a handgun waiting period.

That this is incoherent and the precedent it sets imposes no principled limits on interventionism aside from attention deficit disorder does not seem to trouble the president. Obama is confident he can make Bush's dumb wars smart. He just isn't a very good Decider.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.