September 14 2012
Libya and the Pottery Barn Rule...
The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf lays it on thick about what a great leader President Obama is revealed to be in Michael Lewis’s Vanity Fair profile. And then this:
But the article also raises serious questions about [President Obama’s] honesty and regard for the constitution.
Friedersdorf's article is devastating--both to President Obama and Michael Lewis.
In particular, Friedersdoft writes that the president misled the public on something that is—um—very much in the news today: Libya. It’s been said that Obama “owns” Libya. If you read the Friedersdorf piece, you will come away thinking: and how!
Reading Lewis’s description of the president’s decision-making process on Libya, Friedersdorf says that creating a no-fly zone over Libya (something Obama signed onto reluctantly when the French put him in a bind--so much for leading from behind) was always, contrary to public assertions to the contrary, a “preamble to escalation.”
The president had not made up his mind about intervention when he polled the people in the Cabinet room. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported some form of intervention, while former chief of staff William Daley pointed out that Libya was not high on the list of things important to U.S. citizens.
As is everything with Obama, the decision to intervene in Libya was personal. From Vanity Fair:
From the president's point of view there was a certain benefit in the indifference of the American public to whatever was happening in Libya. It enabled him to do, at least for a moment, pretty much whatever he wanted to do. Libya was the hole in the White House lawn.
Obama made his decision: push for the U.N resolution and effectively invade another Arab country. Of the choice not to intervene he says, "That's not who we are," by which he means that's not who I am. The decision was extraordinarily personal. "No one in the Cabinet was for it," says one witness. "There was no constituency for doing what he did."
Put more succinctly, going to war in Libya was a close call; there are things various folks could have said to deter him; he ran the decision through executive branch and international channels; most people told him not to do it; but if Congress came into the picture at all, it wasn't enough to merit mention in the retelling, and certainly not enough to follow the constitution and put the prospective war to a vote. The people's representatives were excluded.
That remains a scandal.
And it is telling that Michael Lewis, one of America's finest journalists, didn't even ask Obama about failing to put the decision about Libya before Congress.
He didn't ask despite the plain language of the Constitution, Obama's prior statements indicating he fully understood his legal obligations, and the fact that various members of Congress complained about his unilateral action. The imperial presidency is so well entrenched that a journalist like Lewis needn't really question those things to feel as though he's including all the crucial parts of the story about going to war.
The section is headline “Zero Regard for Congressional Approval.”
We were endlessly told in 2008 that, if we elected Obama to the presidency, we would have a constitutional scholar in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, he wasn’t asked much about his views on said document.
The very personal nature of President Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya means that Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule applies more here than in any U.S. intervention in recent memory. In cautioning President George W. Bush about going into Iraq in 2003, then-Secretary of State Powell invoked the retailer’s admonition to customers: “if you break it, you own it.”