There’s plenty to be leery of in Obama’s emerging Libyan theater of operations.
One of the most important issues is that Obama hasn’t provided top-level, national-strategic justification for the operations there. He hasn’t outlined goals or a strategy. In fact, he hasn’t even spoken in public about it.
Instead, he has left the Defense Department to give a few basic pieces of information, but then decline to answer questions beyond that.
One of the basic pieces of information from the Pentagon brief on Monday, given by spokesman Peter Cook, is that Obama ordered the air support to the forces of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) under the 2001 Authorization for Military Force.
There are a number of things wrong with this. In summarizing Cook’s statements, Susan Jones of CNSNews noted one of them on Tuesday:
That 2001 AUMF authorizes the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, and persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons…”
But the Islamic State terror group did not exist in 2001. As President Obama has explained (see below), ISIS emerged from the remnants of al Qaida and Saddam Hussein’s military, and it also attracted Islamic radicals from all around the world.
Jones goes on to recount that Obama requested a new AUMF in 2015, which Congress has so far declined to give him. This is because what Obama has sought is an essentially astrategic AUMF: one that ties the president’s hands in advance on questions like where and how long ground troops could be deployed.
Yet the new AUMF doesn’t support a meaningful strategy in the way the 2001 AUMF fit the framework of the George W. Bush strategy against Islamist terrorism enunciated in the 2002 and 2006 National Security Strategies. That’s of particular concern because the global situation has changed so dramatically since 2011. Obama’s 2015 AUMF request focuses more on setting limits on presidential discretion than on clarifying strategic goals or showing how the AUMF would support them.
Congress is right to require a different product. These basic points tell us everything that matters: that Obama hasn’t systematically updated a coherent strategy for defeating global terrorism; hasn’t made any case for why there’s no need to do that now (if that’s how he feels); and yet is treating the proposal for a new AUMF as if it answers the mail, because he’s made his bureaucratic move and put the ball in Congress’s court.
Instead of policy leadership, Obama is giving America checks in the block.
But there are other problems with the AUMF reference from Peter Cook. The biggest is that the reference came from Peter Cook. Frankly, not even the secretary of defense himself should be on the hook to explain what the basis of authorization is for the operations in Libya. That responsibility lies with the White House. There are two people we should hear from in that regard: the president (preferably — even if it’s through his aides), or the national security advisor (currently Susan Rice).
This is another case of recalibrating our political ears. Obama’s tenure has accustomed us to hearing things from random mid-level spokespeople that we have a right to expect the very highest officials to explain to us.
When military operations are at issue — going in harm’s way, blowing stuff up, killing people — you can’t really overstate how important this is. In a moral sense, it’s hard to imagine where Obama and his senior staff find the gall to adopt a cavalier public attitude about the use of military force, and then criticize the cop on the beat for the life-or-death decisions he or she might have to make.
The third major point here is implied by the first one, and briefly alluded to in the discussion above. It isn’t 2001 anymore. Everything has changed, and changed a lot. It’s 2016, and five years after the Arab Spring, Libya isn’t even “Libya” now, in the sense it was in 2001. ISIS isn’t Al Qaeda. It may be an offshoot, but ISIS is a territorial and governance phenomenon — a literal aspirant to ruling a “caliphate” — in a structured way Al Qaeda has yet to be. You don’t fight ISIS the way you fight Al Qaeda. The measures of effectiveness aren’t the same. The strategy can’t be the same.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda is still there, and its modus operandi has been affected by the Arab Spring, the breakups of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and the rise of ISIS. The formulation of American security goals and strategy is begging to be updated. But it hasn’t been, in any way that’s executable. (I’d still defend my 2009 shorthand for the Obama approach to counter-terrorism and stabilization strategy: “Less cowbell.” That’s basically what Obama told Stanley McChrystal he wanted from the strategy for Afghanistan, and it continues to reflect the Obama philosophy pretty well. The problem is that there’s no way to execute such impressionistic anti-guidance.)
There’s a lot of real there there, in the criticism of Obama’s methods with military force. He’s got America playing with fire like a toddler fiddling with a gas stove.