In early June, a constitutional crisis faced Barack Obama over his defiance of the War Powers Act of 1973. The law requires the President to seek approval by Congress within sixty days of committing American forces to an armed conflict anywhere in the world. Two resolutions emerged and were debated in Congress to force compliance from Obama. One, drafted by the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, called for the President to give a justification of US actions in Libya. On June 3, the Boehner resolution passed by a vote of 268–145. An alternative resolution, drafted by Dennis Kucinich, the best-known anti-interventionist among Democrats, would have called for US withdrawal from Libya within fifteen days. The Kucinich resolution was defeated 148–265.
The debate and the two votes were the first major signs of congressional resistance to the aggrandizement of executive power begun by George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq and continued by Obama in Afghanistan and Libya. The reasons the President had cited in a letter to Congress for his circumvention of congressional approval of his actions in Libya betrayed a curious mixture of arrogance and disregard for the War Powers Act. The US military role in Libya, Obama said, was subordinate, and, since NATO was now in command, the Libya war hardly qualified as a war. Congress was free to discuss the matter if it liked, and he would welcome its approval, but in his view he acted within his legal powers in giving the orders without approval.
Few members of Congress as yet hold a fully articulated objection to America’s wars in Asia and North Africa. But other causes in play may trouble the President’s determination to show his sympathy with the Arab Spring by military action in Libya. Obama has an unfortunate propensity to be specific when it would serve him well to avoid particulars, and to become vague at times when dates, names, numbers, or “a line in the sand” is what is needed to clarify a policy. On Libya, he was specific. He said the American commitment would last “days, not weeks.” It has now lasted a little under three months. Reliable reporters such as Anthony Shadid of The New York Times and Patrick Cockburn of The Independent have suggested that an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight.
The narrow aim of enforcing a “no-fly zone” to protect civilians, asserted by Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton as the limit of American aims, turns out to have been a wedge for an air war against Qaddafi, a war, in fact, as thorough as is compatible with avoidance of harm to civilians. The surest thing one can say about the end of this engagement is that the US—along with France, Great Britain, and perhaps also Italy, which arranged the intervention—will at some point install a client state and fit out a friendly government with a democratic constitution. Nothing about the war affords any insight into the intermediate calculations of Obama and his collaborators, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron.
Obama was in Brasília on March 19 when he announced his authorization of “limited military action” in Libya. For that matter, he has been away from Washington for a large part of his two and a half years as president. This fact may be dwelt on excessively by his detractors, especially at Fox News, but its importance is scarcely acknowledged by his allies. (According to figures compiled at the end of 2010 by the CBS reporter Mark Knoller, Obama’s first twenty-three months in office saw seventy days on foreign trips and fifty-eight days on vacation trips.) He has gambled that it pays to present himself as a statesman above the scramble of something disagreeable called Washington.
Here he follows a path trodden by almost all his predecessors. Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush all affected the stance of outsider; only Bush Senior scorned to adopt the tactic (and could not have gotten away with it if he tried). Nor does taking such a position confer an automatic advantage. It worked well for Reagan until the Iran-contra scandal in 1986. Clinton was helped and hurt in about equal parts by the outsider pretense. For Carter and the younger Bush, it seems to have added to the impression of incompetence or disengagement. People came to think that there were things these men could have learned from Washington.
The anti-Washington tactic, and the extensive travel it licenses, have not worked well for Obama. He retains the wish to be seen as a man above party; and a more general distaste for politics is also involved. But what is Barack Obama if not a politician? By his tones of voice and selection of venues he has implied several possibilities: organizer, pastor, school principal, counselor on duties and values. Most prominently, over the past six months he seems to have improvised the role (from materials left behind by Reagan) of a kind of national host or “moderator” of the concerns of Americans. From mid-2009 through most of 2010, Obama embarked on solo missions to shape public opinion at town hall meetings and talk show bookings, but the preferred format now appears to be the craftily timed and planned and much-heralded ecumenical address. Obama’s televised speech on January 12 at the memorial service after the Tucson shooting was his first major venture on those lines. His speech on May 19 at the State Department was the second; and its announced subject was even more ambitious: the entire domain of US policy in the Middle East.
Being president of the world has sometimes seemed a job more agreeable to Barack Obama than being president of the United States. This goes with another predilection. Obama has always preferred the symbolic authority of the grand utterance to the actual authority of a directed policy: a policy fought for in particulars, carefully sustained, and traceable to his own intentions. The danger of the built-up speech venues—the Nobel Prize speech of December 2009 was another example—is that they cast Obama as the most famous holder-forth in the world, and yet it is never clear what follows for him from the fact that the world is listening. These settings make a president who is now more famous than popular seem not popular but galactic.
The speeches also display as a strength a personal trait that can seem, instead, an indulgence. For Obama, protracted moods of extreme abstraction seem to alternate with spasmodic engagement. The blend is hard to get used to. His detachment from congressional negotiations on health care and cap-and-trade was resented by Democrats, while leaders of the Palestinian Authority were at a loss to account for the dissociation from active pursuit of a settlement that followed his Cairo speech of June 2009. His decision to back the Libyan rebels was an instance of sudden engagement, against the prudential advice of a secretary of defense whom Obama trusts and admires.
The May 19 speech at the State Department brought together in a single performance Obama’s vagueness in defining a policy and his wish to embrace a challenge. A broad survey of the events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain committed him chiefly to giving money to the new governments of Tunisia and Egypt. He would move, he said, to ensure financial stability, promote reform, and integrate the emerging Arab democracies into the international economy. To Bahrain, the home of the US Fifth Fleet, he recommended “dialogue” between the government and the peaceful protesters whom it has attacked: “You can’t have real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”
Before an international audience, Obama tends to speak as if he were the United States addressing the world; and he treats the United States as the most grown-up country in the world. This is the picture he has conveyed in speeches from Oslo to New Delhi, and it was the picture he showed again in his Middle East address at the State Department. As, in February, Obama had wielded a grammar of imperative commandment whose authority was unclear (the “transition” in Egypt “must begin now”)—and as, in March, he seemed to trap himself in a similar grammar (Qaddafi “must go”)—so on May 19 the President remarked the imperative of a transition from despotism in Syria: “President Assad now has a choice. He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”
These commandments emanate from a special understanding of the uniqueness of America’s example. Nonviolent protest and peaceful reform, Obama sometimes seems to be saying, are the only means he can support, and constitutional democracy is the only political end he approves of. Some nations may take a long time to get there but that is another matter: we just want them to show themselves on the path. Yet he illustrated his position on May 19 by three American examples: the rebellion against the British Empire, the Civil War to abolish slavery, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Two of these three movements to widen American democracy were violent. Again, in Libya, he is supporting by arms a violent rebellion. The point is worth making only because the contradiction—which seems to have passed into his thinking undetected—must have been instantly obvious to his Arab listeners.
Obama, as much as any American leader, is captivated by an image of America as the world-historical touchstone of generous conduct toward other nations. This understanding had emerged in his Nobel Prize speech, with a nationalist shading oddly mismatched to the occasion:
The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest—because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
The phrase about having “borne this burden” may have looked back to John Kennedy, but Obama’s self-assurance, in speaking for a patriotism innocent of selfishness, went even further back to the liberalism of William Gladstone. “The high office of bringing Europe into concert, and keeping Europe in concert, is an office specially pointed out for your country to perform,” Gladstone told a British audience in 1880. “That happy condition, so long as we are believed to be disinterested in Europe, secures for us the noblest part that any Power was ever called upon to play.” It seems a peculiar temptation for one kind of leader—the head of an empire—to suppose as Gladstone did and Obama does that a policy of national self-interest will prove identical with a policy of international nobility and self-sacrifice.