It's been two weeks since President Barack Obama announced his administration's intervention in Libya, and so far, the reactions of progressives (liberal or otherwise) have been wide-ranging. On one end, in Congress, a handful of liberal Democrats led by Ohio's Dennis Kucinich have raged against the president for launching yet another war in the Middle East without congressional authorization. On the other, pundits and commentators like Mother Jones' Kevin Drum or The New Republic's Jonathan Chait have either been cautiously optimistic or confident that the mission will succeed in protecting civilians and removing Moammar Gadhafi from power.
But there's a third category: 2008 Obama supporters who are simply baffled by the entire situation. "Who exactly did we vote for in 2008?" they're asking. After all, Barack Obama billed himself as the anti-war candidate. While still a state senator in Illinois, he spoke against the Iraq War, endearing himself to progressive voters and giving him the support necessary to beat Hillary Clinton -- who herself was tarred by her early support for the war -- in the 2008 Democratic primary.
The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan isn't a liberal, but as a vocal supporter of the president, he perfectly captured this confusion in a line from a post written shortly before the United Nations authorized the mission in Libya: "It is very hard to think of another action in direct contravention of Obama's promises as a candidate." Indeed, when you got past the rhetoric of hope and change, the rationale for an Obama presidency boiled down to this: Barack Obama was a less hawkish alternative to what the traditional Democratic establishment had to offer.
With all of this in mind, it's entirely understandable that progressives (and other supporters) are disappointed with the president. That said, I think they were mistaken to believe that Obama would shy away from using military force during his presidency. To be more blunt: Given his past writings and rhetoric, a humanitarian intervention of the sort that we're taking in Libya should have been completely expected, if not inevitable.
Reread his much-praised 2002 speech against the Iraq War. It doesn't begin with a condemnation of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or even the war itself. It begins with this: "Although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances." And after listing the circumstances where war was justified -- in his signature cadence -- he clarifies, "I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war."
Dumb wars, according to the then-state senator, were "based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics." For the last decade, Obama has held to that view. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, for example, he articulates a doctrine for the use of military force that would sound "smart" to his 2002 self: "No other nation on earth has a greater capacity to shape that global system, or build consensus around a new set of international rules that expand the zones of freedom, personal safety, and economic well-being. If we want to make American more secure, we are going to have to help make the world more secure."
In 2008, as the Democratic nominee for president, he further defined this view in his second debate with John McCain, "We may not always have national-security issues at stake, but we have moral issues at stake. I do believe that we have to consider it as part of our interests, our national interests, in intervening where possible. But understand that there's a lot of cruelty around the world. We're not going to be able to be everywhere all the time. That's why it's so important for us to be able to work in concert with our allies."
Substantively, this is virtually indistinguishable from his address on Monday, when he presented a defense of the Libyan intervention. "It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs," the president said. "And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action" -- but, he adds, the calculation is different when we have a "unique ability to stop the violence, an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves."
In his 2009 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama tried to balance the honor of the distinction with his position as commander in chief of the most powerful military to ever exist: "I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace." Given the blood and treasure we've wasted in other dysfunctional Middle Eastern countries, liberal anger over the intervention in Libya is completely justified. But Obama hasn't betrayed his supporters, and this war fits comfortably with decades' worth of rhetoric from the president.
In a sense, the proper target for progressive anger on Libya is less Obama and more the presidency itself. Thanks to a generation of neglect from a succession of uninterested or complacent lawmakers, the presidency has become effectively unbound in its conduct of foreign policy. For those eager to end the trend of foreign interventionism (humanitarian or otherwise), the first target should be Congress.
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