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"Mission Accomplished" in Libya?

The Obama Doctrine is nothing to celebrate.

Gene Healy
August 30, 2011

Editor's Note: This column is reprinted with permission of the Washington Examiner. Click here to read it at that site.

Mission accomplished! As Libyan rebels took Tripoli last week, liberals practically draped that banner across the nation's op-ed pages. Now was the time for all good men to come together and praise a famous victory.

In Newsweek, liberal columnist Michael Tomasky pronounced Libya "completely the right thing to do," President Obama was on his way to becoming "a great foreign policy president."

"Give Obama credit on Libya," The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne insisted, quoting former Bush official L. Paul Bremer on the wisdom of Obama's Libya policy: "It worked."

Bremer, you may recall, was head of Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, famous for botching the occupation and helping stoke a civil war by disbanding the Iraqi army.

For his next trick, maybe Dionne can consult Ray Nagin, New Orleans' feckless mayor during Katrina, on best practices for hurricane preparation.

Let's hold off on the ticker-tape parade for Libya just now, shall we? (Do you even get ticker-tape parades for something the administration insists wasn't a war, but a "kinetic military action"?)

With Libyan rebels apparently engaged in reprisal attacks against Gadhafi loyalists—"the worst treatment," The Washington Post reported Friday, "appeared to be reserved for anyone with black skin"—we can't be assured of a clear-cut victory even by the dubious terms of "humanitarian war."

It's not clear what we've "won" in Libya. But it is clear what we've lost: Whatever's left of the quaint notions that America should wage war only in defense of our vital interests and that presidential uses of military force can and should be constrained by law.

Last week brought some Twitter triumphalism from the Center for American Progress, with the liberal think tank's @ThinkProgress feed linking to House Speaker John' Boehner's June complaint that the president had violated the War Powers Act.

CAP demanded: "Does John Boehner still believe U.S. military operations in Libya are illegal?"

Why shouldn't he? After all, that's what the president's own attorney general believes. Obama's Office of Legal Counsel, backed by Attorney General Eric Holder, told Obama in May that under the War Powers Resolution, he needed congressional authorization to continue bombing Libya after the WPR's time limit expired.

That wasn't what the president wanted to hear, so he got a second opinion from Harold Koh, the servile State Department legal adviser, who argued that we weren't engaged in "hostilities" under the WPR because Gadhafi couldn't effectively return fire.

It was a law professor's version of a "Jedi mind trick": "These are not the 'hostilities' you're thinking of." It didn't convince anyone, but, hey, at least Obama doesn't "swagger."

Has it occurred to anyone in Obama's cheering section that the Koh precedent will be available for use by future presidents? And that they might come to rue embracing the argument that it's perfectly legal for the president to, Zeus-like, rain down destruction from on high wherever he chooses, without so much as a by-your-leave to Congress?

Yet it was a centrist, not a liberal, who provided the most appalling case for Obama's alleged foreign policy wisdom. Last Tuesday at CNN.com, Fareed Zakaria wrote that "Defense Secretary Robert Gates was very clear and he was right: Libya is not vital to our national interest. The point, however, was that ... if we could be helpful, it would be of great benefit to Libya and to America."

Never mind the law, never mind our "vital interests"—if we think we can be "helpful," let the Tomahawks fly. If that's the Obama Doctrine, it's hardly worth cheering.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008). He is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, where this article originally appeared. Click here to read it at that site.



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