|Still from the film, Restrepo|
Opposition has continued to grow in Washington against Obama's unilateral action on Libya. It has emerged that, in a Bush-like gesture, he broke with lawyers of the Pentagon and Justice Department and engaged his own law team to claim he is not in violation of the 1973 War Powers Act, which limits the President's power to declare war without the approval of Congress. Speaker of the House John Boehner thinks Obama's claim that the US isn't engaged in "hostilities" in Libya is absurd, or as he put it doens't stand up to the "straight face test." There is, it turns out, a 60-day rule and a 90-day rule. The US military intervention in Libya has passed the 90-day limit after which the President is to seek approval of Congress for engaging in hostilities. Rep. Boehner wants the President "to outline to the American people why we are there, what the mission is, and what our goals are, and how do we exit this." Conservatives who want a powerful Chief Executive, a Commander in Chief who creates the wars he commands, and hawks like John McCain who favor US military involvement almost anywhere, scoff at these technicalities and claim the War Powers Act (which was always controversial) is unconstitutional. Controversy rages.
Others focus elsewhere. They point out that US involvement in Libya is part of its role in NATO. The US must not be seen as abandoning a military alliance that it dominates; the US's military allies have cooperated in its other hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps, then, US bombing of Libya isn't about Qaddafi or the rebels but about America's relations with the western European members of NATO, just as the bailout of Greece is not so much about Greece as about the economic solvency of France and Germany. The question remains whether the bombing is significantly altering the balance in Libya in favor of the rebels, and how long Qaddafi is going to survive.
Whatever the demands of NATO, if the US is really the leading global power then it should not be coerced into involvement in a minor conflict. Things are just so much more complicated than they seem -- and so much simpler. The fact remains above and beyond all these questions that neither the US nor any western powers ought to have intervened in the internal conflict in Libya. The fundamental issue is simple. The western intervention in Libya is an imperialist gesture. It is getting a hand in. It is a gesture that is easy to justify because a crazy, dictatorial leader was attacking his own people. But that doesn't make Obama's decision any less arbitrary. How many times when dictators were attacking their own people has the US taken no action? How many dictators does the US currently support, or allow to continue? Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria...
US military actions since September 11, 2001 have been notable for their pointlessness, their arbitrariness, and the harm they have caused. And they go on and on and on. Along with the debate in Washington about Libya, now there is more and more discussion of withdrawal from Iraq and from Afghanistan. The President is about to make a dramatic announcement of a withdrawal from Afghanistan. It turns out it is a token withdrawal. It infuriates the hawks, but it simply takes the force back to where it was before the "surge." The fact remains that Afghanistan was a crude, foolish, and futile endeavor. "Our longest war," we're told. But does that mean anything? The US is in a state of perpetual war.
Bush invaded Afghanistan as a gesture of revenge against Al Qaeda for 9/11. The only trouble was, Al Qaeda was not Afghanistan, nor an ally of the Taliban. It was proven by the Russians and a long history that Afghanistan was a country no foreign power could successfully invade and dominate. And so it makes the perfect war, because it can go on forever. You can never win it. But of course Iraq was George W. Bush's big war: "Shock and Awe." There were multiple justifications for this invasion, none of them true. The dictator was eventually hunted down and killed. The infrastructure was devastated. Millions were turned into refugees. There's not as much in Afghanistan to destroy, and the country is so rugged it's hard to get at it. So Iraq was Bush's war, his grudge-war to avenge or outdo his father. Afghanistan has become Obama's piggy-back war. He had to have a war, but discretion being the better part of valor, he simply moved the spot light from Iraq to Afghanistan and made Bush's lesser war his main war. Unfortunately in Afghanistan there was never any hope of success. It is pure gesture, and a very costly one, when the American economy is foundering. We should get out. That's simple.
But getting out in practice is never simple. The powerful and brave (if in some ways unenlighening) Afghan war documentaryRestrepo, as I wrote when I saw it last year, "illustrates the Chris Hedges line that opens Kathryn Bigelow's similarly intense, visceral, but unanalytical fiction film, The Hurt Locker, 'The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.' Soldiers are shown hooting with excitement and saying that being fired upon is 'better than crack,' and they don't know if they can go back to civilian life after living day to day with such an adrenalin rush as the Konragal Valley and Operation Rock Avalanche gave them." War is better than crack, and the US is addicted, big time.
It has to be said that Obama's team of intimates is not as nefarious or dangerous as Bush's and his bombing of Libya's capital is more justifiable than his predecessor's bombing of Baghdad. But if Obama is a less brutal and misguided leader, he's also a weaker one. Obama has aroused anger by failing to justify Libya either to Congress or to the American people. He never seems to have the courage of his convictions. And more often than not he seems unsure of what his convictions are. When history writes his chapter (and how long a chapter it will be remains in doubt) one of the big issues will be to define how Obama's policies changed the direction set by Bush, and how they continued or strengthened that direction.