The feature story that Michael Lewis just published about President Obama's decision-making before the war in Libya includes a lot of details that inspire confidence in his leadership. By all accounts he's intelligent, sober-minded, and inclined to seek out an array of perspectives. And he's frequently forced to make extraordinarily difficult trade-offs with imperfect information. I don't envy his job.
But the article also raises serious questions about his honesty and regard for the Constitution. Let's take them in turn.
On March 28, 2011, Obama gave a televised address about Libya. It included this passage about his actions:
Confronted by this brutal repression and a looming humanitarian crisis, I ordered warships into the Mediterranean. European allies declared their willingness to commit resources to stop the killing. The Libyan opposition, and the Arab League, appealed to the world to save lives in Libya. At my direction, America led an effort with our allies at the United Nations Security Council to pass an historic resolution that authorized a no-fly zone to stop the regime's attacks from the air, and further authorized all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people.
In his telling, a) America led the effort to establish the no-fly zone; and b) the no-fly zone would stop the Libyan regime's attacks from the air.
Compare these assertions to the inside account reported by Lewis (which was vetted by the White House before publication):
If you were president just then and you turned your television to some cable news channel, you would have seen many Republican senators screaming at you to invade Libya and many Democratic congressmen hollering at you that you had no business putting American lives at risk in Libya. If you flipped over to the networks on March 7, you might have caught ABC White House Correspondent Jake Tapper saying to your press secretary, Jay Carney, "More than a thousand people have died, according to the United Nations. How many more people have to die before the United States decides, OK, we're going to take this one step of a no-fly zone?"
By March 13, Qaddafi appeared to be roughly two weeks from getting to Benghazi. On that day, the French announced they were planning to introduce a resolution in the United Nations to use U.N. forces to secure the skies over Libya in order to prevent Libyan planes from flying. A "no-fly zone" this was called, and it forced Obama's hand.The president had to decide whether to support the no-fly-zone resolution or not. At 4:10 p.m.on March 15, the White House held a meeting to discuss the issue. "Here is what we knew," recalls Obama, by which he means here is what I knew. "We knew that Qaddafi was moving on Benghazi, and that his history was such that he could carry out a threat to kill tens of thousands of people. We knew we didn't have a lot of time--somewhere between two days and two weeks. We knew they were moving faster than we originally anticipated. We knew that Europe was proposing a no-fly zone."
That much had been in the news. One crucial piece of information had not. "We knew that a no-fly zone would not save the people of Benghazi," says Obama. "The no-fly zone was an expression of concern that didn't really do anything." European leaders wanted to create a no-fly zone to stop Qaddafi, but Qaddafi wasn't flying. His army was racing across the North African desert in jeeps and tanks. Obama had to have wondered just how aware of this were these foreign leaders supposedly interested in the fate of these Libyan civilians. He didn't know if they knew that a no-fly zone was pointless, but if they'd talked to any military leader for five minutes they would have.And that was not all."The last thing we knew," he adds, "is that if you announced a no-fly zone and if it appeared feckless, there would be additional pressure for us to go further. As enthusiastic as France and Britain were about the no-fly zone, there was a danger that if we participated the U.S. would own the operation. Because we had the capacity."
To summarize, a) America did not lead the effort to establish a no-fly zone--it reluctantly signed on to the idea after its hand was forced by the French; b) the no-fly zone wouldn't stop the regime's attacks because they weren't coming from the air. It was, rather, a preamble to escalation.
Due to the nature of the Libya conflict, these misrepresentations weren't nearly as consequential as, say, the way George W. Bush spoke out about weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war. It is nevertheless an example of the president deliberately misleading the American people in order to facilitate false impressions about foreign military actions that he finds convenient.
ZERO REGARD FOR CONGRESSIONAL APPROVAL
It's long been established that Obama failed to secure a congressional declaration of war, as the Constitution and Sen. Obama's understanding of it dictated; and that he violated the War Powers Resolution. It is nevertheless worth revisiting the subject given these new details about his thought process: