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Turning On a Dime

By all accounts, the decision for the U.S. to facilitate a U.N. resolution on Libya came during a Tuesday meeting in the White House when Obama was persuaded by advocates of humanitarian intervention, namely Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power. The collapse of the rebels’ position and the impending fall of Benghazi spurred the administration to take last-minute action that they had been publicly resisting for weeks before that. Up until then, everyone (including and especially officials at the Pentagon) was working under the assumption that the U.S. would not be intervening. Josh Rogin described this process last week:

At the start of this week, the consensus around Washington was that military action against Libya was not in the cards. However, in the last several days, the White House completely altered its stance and successfully pushed for the authorization for military intervention against Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. What changed?

The key decision was made by President Barack Obama himself at a Tuesday evening senior-level meeting at the White House, which was described by two administration officials as “extremely contentious.” Inside that meeting, officials presented arguments both for and against attacking Libya. Obama ultimately sided with the interventionists. His overall thinking was described to a group of experts who had been called to the White House to discuss the crisis in Libya only days earlier.

“This is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values,” a senior administration official said at the meeting, telling the experts this sentence came from Obama himself. The president was referring to the broader change going on in the Middle East and the need to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights.

This is why I referred to Obama’s “unexpected about-face” on Libya intervention in my latest column. Ben Domenech believes that I have a “profoundly exaggerated” view of Obama’s role in shaping the U.S. response. Domenech argues that “wars don’t merely occur at the whim of the president, nor are they always prosecuted by his design.” I’ll grant Domenech the second part of that, but the Libyan war is as close to a case of a war occurring at the whim of the President as one can find. Obviously, Obama’s decision didn’t occur in a vacuum. There were some loud calls for U.S. intervention coming from members of Congress, and Obama’s decision is inexplicable without referring to the officials in the administration that argued in support of intervention, but it was Obama who abruptly sided with interventionists at that meeting and it was Obama who made possible the process of organizing a Security Council resolution last week.

As a matter of process, what I referred to as Obama’s “about-face” was the critical event without which it is doubtful that the resolution or military action would have happened. Obama wasn’t and isn’t the only actor who matters in all of this, but without Obama’s endorsement of the intervention the Libyan war wouldn’t be happening, or at the very least the U.S. would not be directly involved in it. When I referred to Obama’s decision to intervene as a combination of the worst traits of Bush and Blair, I was referring mainly to the substance or to the results of the decision. As I explained in the column, Obama’s decision was a hybrid of the worst of Bush and Blair because it combined executive usurpation with the impulse to engage in humanitarian interventionism.

Like Bush, Obama has claimed sweeping presidential authority in a matter of national security, in this case the authority to start wars without authorizaiton, even if he and his advisors refuse to call the war by its proper name. Like Blair in Kosovo, he has responded to another country’s political crisis by treating it as an opportunity to enforce a new norm of liberal internationalism. I could have gone beyond that to say that Obama is engaging in executive usurpation because he has launched a war of humanitarian intervention (and a “time-limited” one, no less), which according to administration officials does not require him to receive Congressional authorization. Obama’s Blair-like policy has led him to take Bush-like actions.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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