The similarities are haunting and troubling - a United States President warns of the evils of a foreign leader and determines that it is in our national interest to launch a military offensive in the purported dictator’s country. For George W. Bush, the target was Saddam Hussein and the premise for the U.S. invasion was that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that he was ready to inflict upon Iraqis opposed to the Baath regime and neighboring countries. In the case of Barack Obama, the target is Moammar Gaddafi and the justification for U.S. military intervention is Libya is that Gaddafi is killing innocent citizens in his effort to rebuff opposition rebels. In both instances, the President bypasses Congress for a formal authorization of war and raises important constitutional questions on the power of the executive to commit troops to battle.
The differences stop there. George W. Bush never campaigned as a candidate supporting military restraint. It was clear from the cast of characters that President Bush summoned as his defense team that military engagement would always be an option during his presidency. Even the presence of General Colin Powell did not diminish the prospect of war under the Bush White House since the general had been at the forefront of the first Gulf War under President George H. Bush. By contrast, Barack Obama campaigned as a candidate who raised concern over our nation’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan; pledged withdrawal from those conflicts if elected, and gave the impression that diplomatic options would be exhausted before committing U.S. troops to war if he were in the Oval Office. It is not accurate to portray Obama as an anti-war candidate, but one who seemed to understand that our “national interest” must be clearly defined before putting American troops in harms way.
The current engagement in Libya poses a serious challenge to the Obama presidency. With the country soured on United Stated involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the billions of dollars expended monthly on war taxing the government as the federal deficit balloons, President Obama has now taken up the mantle of war and heaved it on the shoulders of his legacy. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama has committed troops at a time when he does not have the benefit of a wave of patriotism that swept the country after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and that President Bush’s team so deftly exploited. Libya poses a real threat to be the anchor that weighs this administration down and risks the President’s chances for re-election.
In defense of his decision to enjoin U.S. troops in combat in Iraq, President Obama last night in a televised address said, “For more than four decades, the Libyan people have been ruled by a tyrant -– Muammar Qaddafi. He has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world –- including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents.” He then cited U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 as the basis of his authorization to commit troops. While the United States did join a coalition of international allies - the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Italy to name a few - based on the action of the U.N. Security Council, the justification for war remains muddled. As the President himself has noted, the Libyan leader has been viewed as a despot for four decades although the perception of him within the continent is more complex, as some African leaders view him as an ally and someone who stands up to western intrusion. What President Obama is leaning on in this instance, is strong moral justification for U.S. military involvement. In responding to critics who question why the U.S. should get involved in Libya, President Obama said, “But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country -– Libya -- at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves.” If that indeed is the new Obama doctrine, it raises the question on what qualifies as a moral imperative and will the President be the sole determinant of when conflicts reach a moral threshold that compels U.S. military engagement.
The challenge now for supporters of the President is to reconcile the war-time President with the rhetoric of their 2008 presidential candidate. It may not be an impossible task since common sense suggests that a nation with a standing military the size and strength of the United States will eventually use it. Soldiers, after all, enlist with the full understanding that at any time they may be sent into combat and that there is no guarantee of a safe return. It is the ugly reality of warfare. What is really at stake, as it was during the invasion of Iraq, is what constitutes the nation’s interest in foreign lands. President Bush exploited the insecurities of a nation still traumatized from a horrendous day of terror on U.S. soil but years later, and a trillion dollars in the hole, it is still unclear as to how our engagement in Iraq advanced our interest or improved our security. President Obama has pledged a limited role in Libya for U.S. troops but left open the possibility that our military could engage Gaddafi unilaterally. The President’s speech to the nation raises as many questions as it supposedly answered.