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Obama's 'Poorly Conceived' Libya Intervention

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, CFR Senior Vice President, Director of Studies and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
March 25, 2011

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U.S. President Barack Obama is facing criticism over U.S. involvement in Libya, with some questioning the legitimacy of intervention and others objecting to a lack of clarity and poor timing. CFR Director of Studies James M. Lindsay argues that a no-fly zone was always insufficient to protect civilians, and that mixed messages from the administration, coalition bickering, and the failure of Arab states to contribute to the effort have meant a "stumbling start" to the operation. Lindsay notes that despite questions about the legality of the White House's decision to use force, in fact the War Powers Resolution--which allows a president sixty days to use force before seeking congressional approval--seems to have been followed. Lindsay also warns that the split with NATO, particularly Germany's decision not to take part, is potentially serious, but that "if the administration's goal is achieved and Qaddafi goes, then this dynamic will change overnight."

What is your overall feeling now about the U.S. role in the Libya operation?

The mission was poorly conceived, because a no-fly zone was never sufficient to protect civilians. Air strikes are now targeting Libyan ground forces, but the fighting persists and pro-Qaddafi forces continue to control much of the country. Where we go from here is unclear. On the implementation side, coalition members have bickered about who is participating and what the command structure should look like. Meanwhile, the expected contributions from Arab countries have yet to materialize. Finally, administration officials have sent mixed messages about the purposes of the operation, confusing allies and undermining support at home. President Obama may still salvage the day, but Operation Odyssey Dawn has gotten to a stumbling start.

That's a pretty critical evaluation. At first, Obama seemed very reluctant to get involved in Libya. In fact, even though he said that Qaddafi "should go," he didn't seem interested at first in any military action. What do you think tipped the scale?

We can only guess on the basis of what has been reported. What seems to have been pivotal was the recognition that Benghazi [under rebel control] was about to come under attack and that could lead to a bloodbath in Libya's second largest city. Critics of the president's approach who have supported the no-fly zone have argued--in my estimation fairly--that the problem that Benghazi was likely to face was obvious much earlier on. Hence, if the president was going to go with a no-fly zone or military action, he should have intervened sooner. That would have had a higher probability of stopping Qaddafi's forces, making it more likely that momentum would have gone the other way. By waiting until it was obvious that Benghazi was going to come under attack, the chances of success became much lower and more rebel territory was lost.

We are hearing voices from Congress saying this is illegal. The administration filed a notice (WashPost) to Congress under the War Powers Resolution of 1973 This would seem to make the U.S. military action in Libya "legal," right?

If the president was going to go with a no-fly zone or military action, he should have intervened sooner. That would have had a higher probability of stopping Qaddafi's forces, making it more likely that momentum would have gone the other way.

Congress itself isn't saying anything right now, because the only way Congress speaks is by acting and passing legislation. Members of Congress have been all over the map. I would actually argue that what's most notable is how much the discussion [in Congress] is on procedural issues as opposed to substantive issues. You've had people who were either very anti-no-fly zone or pro-no-fly zone, but many members of Congress have shied away from talking about whether this is a mission worthy of American investment. That partly has to do with policy considerations. They can justifiably say they haven't heard enough from the administration to decide whether this is the right thing to do. There is probably also a heavy dose of political calculation.

I'm not sure how this is going to play out. I would note that right now the initial polls for support of the operation show more Americans (Politico) in favor than opposed, but the numbers in support are actually very low compared to polling done at the start of past military operations. The administration has had trouble explaining how Operation Odyssey Dawn is going to work, what the end point is, and who is going to run it. The administration has not said what we will do if we actually get a ceasefire. If the military action continues, it may be that the public sours on the mission very quickly, in which case members of Congress will feel more comfortable criticizing. On the flip side, of course, if Qaddafi either leaves or gets pushed out, we will see the tides swing in the other direction, in favor of the president, because at the end of the day success heals a lot of wounds and covers up a lot of mistakes.

What about the legal issues? Is there a War Powers Resolution issue?

Here we get down to the question of what is constitutional and what is legal. If you want to go through the many books that have been written on the War Powers Resolution, you can find one that will match up to whatever preexisting position you take.

It seems pretty clear given previous court rulings that the following are true: One, that the War Powers Resolution effectively gives the president sixty days carte blanche to use military force. The second thing is that if anyone tries to sue the president in court, arguing that he has exceeded his authority, they are unlikely to get a friendly hearing. The courts traditionally have ruled these to be political questions in which they argue they have no standing. The final thing I would offer here in terms of the legality or constitutionality of the president's action is that it actually highlights how differently the War Powers question is treated today [than it was two hundred years ago].

The original understanding of the president's authority in foreign affairs to initiate force was far more constrained than it was today. In 1810, when Congress passed a law delegating authority to President James Madison to decide whether to use force against the British, he argued that it was unconstitutional. In an 1804 case called the famous Flying Fish Case--which boiled down to the question of whether the U.S. Navy, on orders from President John Adams in 1799, could seize a ship that was going to French ports--the Supreme Court ruled that since Congress had not permitted this, the action was illegal.

Or even going back to the mid-1790s, when President George Washington announced he wanted to be neutral in the war that had broken out between Great Britain and France. That led to a famous debate between James Madison and Alexander Hamilton over whether the president had the power to declare neutrality. Hamilton said he did; Madison said he didn't. One would think that, if there were real questions about whether the president could declare neutrality, for most of the framers of the Constitution the modern conception of what the president can do would seem very foreign to them.

After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war.

The big change on that score would come in 1950 when the United States went to war in Korea without any explicit congressional authorization. What happened then was a meeting between President Harry Truman and a number of senior congressional leaders, and the advice he got was that the president shouldn't go to Congress to get authorization.

The mission itself will rise or fall on whether it works. If it works, a lot of issues will go away. If it doesn't work, where you will see Congress becoming involved is on this question of how are we funding it. But it's politically difficult to cut off funding to U.S .troops in the middle of operations.

But then if you just look a little bit further at some of the subsequent actions--the use of force in Vietnam, the Gulf War of 1991, or the Iraq War of 2003--Congress did authorize those. You can even look at the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that authorized military action in Southeast Asia and the debate around it. One senator got up and asked Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, "Doesn't this amount to letting the president go to war if he wants to?" Fulbright, who was the bill's floor manager, said, "Yes, but I don't expect him to do that."

I don't expect at the end of the day for this to ever be adjudicated in a court. The mission itself will rise or fall on whether it works. If it works, a lot of issues will go away. If it doesn't work, where you will see Congress becoming involved is on this question of how are we funding it. But it's politically difficult to cut off funding to U.S .troops in the middle of operations.

Are you bothered about consistency? For example, neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration intervened militarily in Darfur. The Eisenhower administration didn't intervene in Hungary on the side of forces trying to break away from the Communist rule, because that could have started a war with the Soviet Union. Does consistency matter?

Consistency does manner, but consistency is not constraining. Consistency matters in the sense that the president, in his public statements about Operation Odyssey Dawn, has very closely tied it to the notion of a responsibility to protect. The problem is that if you're going to make the case for applying that norm, then you have to be prepared to do it elsewhere. I would expect that going forward you're going to see calls that if it's permissible in Libya, why not Cote D'Ivoire; if Libya, why not Sudan; if Libya, why not Congo--so on. That will put the president in a difficult position politically. The problem of consistency bedevils all presidents.

A big moment in the decision to intervene in Libya was when the Arab League passed a resolution (EveningStandard) calling on the Security Council to set up a no-fly zone in Libya.

One of the administration's problems in putting together this international coalition has been to get the kind of robust participation they hoped for. What we have seen over the first week is that the administration either failed to get all the pieces to fit together or what they thought they had gotten to fit together fell apart. So far, only two Arab countries have agreed to contribute forces. One is Qatar, and that contribution looks to be minor or cosmetic [four aircraft]. The UAE has apparently offered a dozen aircraft (RTTNews) . The deeper issues are going to be outside the Middle East. In Europe, clearly divisions have emerged among the big three: the French, the British and the Germans.

This seems to be a serious split in NATO, since Germany absolutely refuses to go along with the Libyan actions.

The divisions in Europe were clear from the start, because the UN Security Council vote included an abstention by Germany. The abstention was significant given the prominence of Germany within the EU and within NATO. Since then, there have been additional complications, with the French not wanting to run the operation through NATO. The fact that the Turks began not wanting to have a military operation against Libya, but now apparently backtracking. And you had the remarkable scene earlier in the week where the secretary-general of NATO criticized the French and the Germans, and the French and German officials walked out of the room (FT) in anger. One of the broader questions for Europeans is going to be will these divisions have long-term consequences for the EU and for NATO, in part because the EU is under tremendous stress due to economic and financial problems. But again, if the administration's goal is achieved and Qaddafi goes, then this dynamic will change overnight.

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