Operation Odyssey Dawn, the codename for U.S.-led airstrikes in Libya, is decidedly different than the ongoing military operations underway in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike those wars, which President Barack Obama inherited from his predecessor, Libya is President Obama’s war from start to finish. As such, it offers us the first true picture of how this commander-in-chief commands—and how he believes U.S. force should be employed.
Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of intervening in Libya’s civil war. A solid case can be made for staying out or for getting in. But the merits and soundness of how a president goes about getting in or staying out are less open to debate. So far, the worryingly-named Odyssey Dawn—just what sort of odyssey are we beginning?—seems to indicate that the president is ambivalent about the application of military force, ambiguous about what it entails, inconsistent about how and where it should be used, and confused when it comes to how it is authorized and legitimized.
Ambivalent. If published reports are accurate, the president was in the middle of a tug-of-war between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for weeks, with Gates opposing intervention and Clinton advocating it. Clinton obviously won, but the result may have been too little too late. The best time to act would have been when the Libyan rebels had the momentum, when they had captured all but Tripoli, which was about three weeks ago.
Instead of acting then, the president mouthed vague comments about Khadafy stepping down and seemed to defer to France and Britain, and ultimately to Secretary Clinton and the more hawkish members of the administration.
By the time the president announced that attacks were underway, he was in Brazil, making the entire Libya situation look like a distraction to the White House. As one European diplomat was quoted as saying in The Cable, “We are wondering if this is a priority for the United States.”
Ambiguous. We’ve been told these airstrikes are designed to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone. Yet the relevant UN Security Council resolution authorizes much more, specifically: member states can “use all necessary means…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.”
In other words, that’s a very broad writ.
It’s no wonder that a French official says Odyssey Dawn will take “a while.” According to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it’s “hard to say how long it will go on.” The United States, he says, is going to “contribute our unique capabilities at the front end of the mission” and then hand operational command off to someone else, somewhere else, at sometime in the future.
The president’s surrogates, among them Sen. John Kerry, refuse even to characterize the strikes on Libya—involving U.S. B-2s, F-15s, F-16s and waves of sea-launched cruise missiles—as war. “I would not call it going to war,” Sen. Kerry said, striking an almost-Orwellian note. Instead, according to the senator, “This is a very limited operation that is geared to save lives, and it was specifically targeted on a humanitarian basis.”
The goal of this mission, adds Sen. Kerry, “is not to get rid of Khadafy” because “that’s not what the United Nations licensed.” (More on that below.)
Yet French foreign minister Alain Juppe has openly said, “It is not enough to proclaim, as did almost all of the major democracies that ‘Qaddafi must go.’ We must give ourselves the means to effectively assist those who took up arms against his dictatorship.” That sounds a lot like regime change.
More importantly, we now know that British missiles targeted and struck Khadafy’s residential compound. That looks a lot like an attempt at regime change.
The president, for his part, has called for the Libyan leader’s ouster—“Colonel Khadafy needs to step down from power and leave”—and yet was noticeably silent on the issue during his speech announcing the start of the war, or as Sen. Kerry describes it, “very limited operation geared to save lives.”
In fact, the administration seems less than fully committed to Khadafy’s overthrow. For example, the president explained last week that he is in “consultation with the international community to try to achieve the goal of Mr. Khadafy being removed from power.”
In a similar vein, Adm. Mullen concedes that a military stalemate resulting in Khadafy staying in power is “a possibility.”
On the other hand, Secretary Clinton says the “final result of any negotiations would have to be the decision by Colonel Khadafy to leave.”
Inconsistent. That brings us to the inconsistencies exposed by Odyssey Dawn. The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League—two bastions of representative democracy—have supported the U.S.-led airstrikes in Libya “to stop bloodshed,” according to the GCC secretary general. And the West is acting in order “to prevent the slaughter of innocent people, to prevent a dictator from dragging people out of hospital beds,” in Sen. Kerry’s words. (A noble objective, to be sure, but one wonders how a no-fly zone will prevent that.) Yet at the same time, the GCC is supporting a Brezhnev-style intervention in Bahrain to crush an anti-authoritarian uprising—and the West is intervening against an autocrat’s crackdown in Libya while averting its gaze from an autocrat’s crackdown in Bahrain.
Confused. Finally, Odyssey Dawn has exposed a confused, even backwards, understanding of what legitimizes U.S. military action. As a Democratic lawmaker told Politico, “They [the administration] consulted the Arab League. They consulted the United Nations. They did not consult the United States Congress.” And that’s a problem. The only thing that legitimizes the use of U.S. military force is what the Constitution requires: congressional approval. To seek the UN’s blessing after Congress has passed a declaration of war or use-of-force resolution may be unpleasant to some of us, but it’s a tolerable means to a greater end. Seeking UN approval, while citing the endorsement of the Arab League, before Congress has considered the matter suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of where the commander-in-chief derives legitimacy for his war-making authority.
Despite all the flaws exposed on the front end of Odyssey Dawn, the U.S. armed forces may still make this work. If anybody can, they can. But it won’t be easy.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.