Kurtz: The president sets a faulty precedent

Michael Kurtz

I never thought I’d say this, but I feel deeply dismayed by Barack Obama; a yawning gap has emerged between his words and his actions. As a candidate in December of 2007, he stated unequivocally that the president has no constitutional right to authorize unilateral military action when there is no imminent threat. But last week he did exactly that for the weakest of reasons and without a congressional vote or any substantial public debate. Even worse, he only deigned to explain himself after the fact. To justify Operation Odyssey Dawn, he claimed that the U.S. couldn’t tolerate humanitarian atrocities. I don’t know what could have given him that idea. In the 90s, we did not bomb apartheid-era South Africa or stop the Rwandan genocide. We have idled, in more recent years, amidst crackdowns on human rights in Myanmar and the Congo. And we’ve never threatened Saudi Arabia, a 17th-century style absolute monarchy where women are legally prohibited from practicing law.

Obama’s second reason was that grisly Libyan violence has destabilized the region and endangered world peace. But if brutality were a legitimate casus belli, we’d have pummeled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez and Alexander Lukashenko into oblivion long ago. At least Bush contended that Saddam’s imaginary WMDs threatened America. But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has explicitly denied that Libya represents a “vital national interest.” To intervene when there is no actual threat is to legitimate almost any action anywhere. But it’s hard to be the world’s policeman and its biggest debtor nation.

In 2008, voters overwhelmingly rejected baseless, expensive, open-ended foreign entanglements. Obama frequently emphasized his unstinting opposition to the war in Iraq and repeatedly bludgeoned Hillary Clinton and John McCain for supporting it. He called it a “dumb war,” citing its unspecified size and scope in blood and treasure. But, appearances be damned, he seems to have thrown that old caution to the wind. The non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimates that continued involvement in coming weeks will cost the U.S. more than $2 billion, which exceeds the annual combined price tag of Tea Party scourges NPR and Planned Parenthood. Plus, handing responsibility to NATO might not mean that much. We still don’t have concrete timetables or benchmarks for success, and Obama failed to mention that we supply more of NATO’s budget and military leadership than the next largest contributors – Britain and France – put together. Moreover, regional powers have hardly contributed. Apparently, the Arab League’s rhetorical support was only enough to convince Qatar and the UAE (but not Egypt or Saudi Arabia) to extend practical military aid.

So in lieu of an imminent threat and in direct contravention of his campaign promises and core political appeal, a Democratic president (and self-described pragmatist) has bombed a combustible Arab dictatorship in the throes of revolution. Deep in the bowels of Fox News studios, William Kristol and John Bolton, the brain-dead neocons who brought you the second Gulf War, writhe in vindicated glee. Obama assures us that this mission will be brief and precise. But democracy has never been about taking the president’s word for it. We need a congressional vote to check this administration, get our leaders on record and hold them accountable.

In the last 10 years we’ve learned – most painfully, in Iraq – that foreign policy based on flimsy supposition is unworkable. Let’s not get bogged down again.

Michael Kurtz is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected] Illustration by Sophie Jenkins.