Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Over the past few months, I’ve crossed party lines, readily upset conventional assumptions, and taken heat from friends and allies to express qualified but genuine support for President Obama’s foreign policy in many respects, especially with respect to the use of American military force. I have spoken in favor of Obama’s military intervention in Libya to prevent a civilian massacre, his willingness to hold strong (up until now) on the American military presence in Afghanistan to build opportunities for a new generation there (especially as to the prospects for women and children in that country), and his bold leadership in presiding over the raid to remove Osama bin Laden as the world’s most notorious figure of terrorism.
In each case, I’ve been willing to voice my support because I thought President Obama had not only made the right decision but had done so for reasons of principle. Recognizing that reasonable people could disagree, I nonetheless believed that these difficult choices were consistent with Catholic teaching about the regrettable but sometimes necessary use of military force and also with the highest ideals for American moral responsibility in the world.
So why does President Obama make it so darn hard to continue to defend that foreign policy?
On Afghanistan, Obama now has chosen to withdraw American troops on a scale and at a rate that overrides the better-informed advice of military leadership and that makes success in that country, on any measure and even in a limited manner, far less likely. Obama’s speech announcing the draw-down of troops from Afghanistan lacked any specific rationale for his actions beyond platitudes. He appeared to many observers as trying to have it both way, gesturing to the left with a (partial) end to a long war, while dodging criticism from the right that he was simply retreating. As a result, we now have an Afghanistan policy that makes no sense militarily, economically, or otherwise—too big to simply prevent it from becoming again a base to international terrorism but too small to give a chance to rebuilding a society. One cynically wonders whether Obama’s decision to withdraw 30,000 soldiers from Afghanistan by the particular date of September 2012 is designed to serve any purpose other than to coincide with the Democratic National Convention in September 2012.
On Libya, Obama has adopted the truly laughable (see Stephen Colbert video excerpt posted here) argument that the United States in launching cruise missiles, flying high altitude bombing strikes, and unleashing drone aircraft against the Gaddafi regime has not engaged in “hostilities” within the meaning of the War Powers Resolution. Even setting aside the fact that American forces were placed at risk in this episode (remember that at least one American aircraft crashed in Libya, with both servicemen fortunately being quickly rescued) and that American personnel appear to have been on the ground in an advising capacity to Libyan rebels, no one is buying the argument that America is not engaged in hostilities.
As Senator Bob Corker puts it: “If dropping bombs and firing missiles on military installations are not hostilities, I don’t know what is. The president’s actions on Libya are nothing short of bizarre." More importantly in its moral implications, as Notre Dame Professor Mary Ellen O’Connell reminds us, if the United States is not engaged in “hostilities” in Libya, then our country’s armed “forces are engaged in unlawful killing. The U.S. has deployed manned and unmanned aircraft to fire missiles and drop bombs—the type of weapons only permissible for use in armed conflict hostilities.”
There were two principled paths that Obama could have taken on Libya, but he chose neither. First, he could have shown real leadership by making the moral case to the American people for continued participation in the NATO action in Libya, rather than leaving that task to his former opponent, Senator John McCain. On this path, Obama would have forthrightly sought congressional approval (as have Obama’s predecessors, including President George W. Bush, in every similar past case). Second, Obama could have argued that the War Powers Resolution is an unconstitutional intrusion on presidential powers and forthrightly said he would not comply with its requirements (again, a position taken by Obama’s predecessors of both parties). Right or wrong on the substance, either position had the merit of integrity. Instead, Obama appears to want to avoid any responsibility by pretending nothing really is happening (just move along, nothing to see here).
Sadly, I now am beginning to believe that Obama’s foreign policy is driven by political expediency rather than motivated by moral principle. I worry that our foreign and military policy will fail to have a plausible moral justification while simultaneously sending a dangerous message of weakness and lack of resolve to the rest of the world. And I am beginning to wonder whether I and others (especially those of us not of the President’s party) who have supported these foreign policy steps have been played for chumps here. Tell me, am I wrong?