Is there anything more ridiculous than the notion of war as a humanitarian
I suppose it depends on if you’re the bomber or the bombed upon.
As I heard President Obama lay down his justification for military action in
Libya the other night, I wondered if I understood what he was saying. War as a
humanitarian gesture either sounds high minded, or like the president had
reached new heights in political double talk. (Or subtext, since he avoided
calling it a war.) But that humanitarian part still troubled me. Really, like
Gandhi or Mother Theresa would be up in the cockpit of a jet loaded with
But the president was serious. So are these Libyan airstrikes Obama’s love
Normally, when Obama faces criticism, he can rely on a speech to get him over.
But not this time.
Like many Americans, I wanted clarification on the war’s legality, and why he
didn’t go for a Congressional vote before taking action through NATO. After all,
it is Congress that declares war in a democracy. That’s the way it’s spelled out
in the guiding document known as the Constitution (Article 1, section 8).
Instead, Obama implied his own “Doctrine,” which defines when he as president
could use military force. To justify by-passing both the Congress and the
Constitution would make it an undemocratic war defending the fight for
democracy. But it’s not a war, remember.
Obama did mention speaking to Congressional leaders. But when he didn’t go to
the House, he didn’t take the issue to you, me or our representatives until the
speech. And by then, there was no formal debate.
Devoid of real answers, the president’s speech was filled with emotion. Obama
talked about the people of Libya, and specifically Benghazi, a town most
Americans couldn’t pick out on a map. Just so we could relate, he added a
domestic touch, saying the town was about the size of Charlotte. He showed how
he cared for these people, referred to as rats by Gadhafi, and how they could be
wiped out in “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and
stained the conscience of the world.”
As the president continued: “It was not in our national interest to let that
happen. I refused to let that happen.”
Finally, an Obama with some backbone!
I do feel some compassion and concern for the Libyan people. But if we as a
country are to show compassion through military force, it has to be a democratic
congressional decision, and not done unilaterally by executive will. And
there’s the question many Americans are asking: Does this new Obama “doctrine”
mean we’ll have to go in as humanitarian cops everywhere?
I don’t want to be an isolationist, but I just wish Obama could be as passionate
and principled a fighter for the people on the verge of economic and financial
disaster in our own country.
What about those without health care who would have benefited from health care
reform’s ill-fated “public option”?
What about doing more for the millions who are out of work and have given up?
How about forcing banks to bail out greater numbers of homeowners just as the
government has bailed out banks?
How about making sure our public schools have the money to hire the teachers
needed to provide the education that would keep America’s future strong?
I wish the president were as forceful about the humanitarian rights of any
number of Guantanamo detainees, or Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of
enabling the Wikileaks dump. He’s being held in a cell in Quantico, Virginia,
forced to strip naked and be searched each night. But he’s just one man, not the
size of Charlotte.
Instead, our president’s passion has been directed to preventing a massacre that
may have been an idle threat. Given what we know about Gadhafi’s bluster, it may
have been worth it to call his bluff and then act with real purpose.
By acting first, we’ve paid a price for entry. The Pentagon estimates the action
to date has cost the U.S. $550 million. And despite what the president said, the
mission may only be semi-accomplished.
Even with a handover to NATO this week, the U.S. will still bear the major
burden. The U.S. funds about 25 percent of NATO’s budget and is still considered
the leader. At a time when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing $16
billion a month (Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz’s estimate on top of ongoing
defense spending), it may be time for Congress to try to limit the overall
expense for Libya.
Other questions remain. Who exactly are the rebels and what do they stand for?
Are they better than Gadhafi, our friend just last year, now mortal enemy.
Reports on the ground say the Libyan rebels are less than Minutemen,
ill-equipped and under-trained. They are good Muslim followers, but not
considered radical. Just radical enough to take on the colonel. For now they
are U.S. co-combatants in this civil war.
But it’s not a war, remember. Maybe that’s why the president’s speech couldn’t
be any clearer than it was. A military action devoid of clarity just leaves a
mess. Are you ready for the quagmire?