WASHINGTON — Barack Obama’s foreign policy dream — cordial relations with a Middle East tranquilized by “smart diplomacy” — is in a death grapple with reality. His rhetorical writhings illustrate the perils of loquacity. He has a glutton’s rather than a gourmet’s appetite for his own rhetorical cuisine, and has talked America to the precipice of a fourth military intervention in the crescent that extends from Libya to Afghanistan.
Characterizing the 2011 Libyan project with weirdly passive syntax (“It is our military that is being volunteered by others to carry out missions”), he explained his sashay into Libya’s civil war as pre-emptive: “I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
With characteristic self-satisfaction, Obama embraced the doctrine “R2P” — responsibility to protect civilians — and Libya looked like an opportunity for an inexpensive morality gesture using high explosives.
Last August, R2P reappeared when he startled his staff by offhandedly saying of Syria’s poison gas: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” The interesting metric “whole bunch” made his principle mostly a loophole and advertised his reluctance to intervene, a reluctance more sensible than his words last week: Syria’s recidivism regarding gas is “going to require America’s attention and hopefully the entire international community’s attention.” Regarding that entirety: If “community” connotes substantial shared values and objectives, what community would encompass Denmark, Congo, Canada, North Korea, Portugal, Cuba, Norway, Iran, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Poland and Yemen? Words, however, are so marvelously malleable in the Obama administration, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “coup” (“a change in the government carried out violently or illegally”) somehow does not denote what happened in Egypt. Last week, an Obama spokesman said: “We have made the determination that making a decision about whether or not a coup occurred is not in the best interests of the United States.” So convinced is this White House of its own majesty and of the consequent magic of its words, it considers this a clever way of saying the law is a nuisance.
Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act forbids aid to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup” until the president determines that “a democratically elected government” has been restored. Secretary of State John Kerry was perhaps preparing to ignore this when he said something Egypt’s generals have not had the effrontery to claim — that the coup amounted to “restoring democracy.”
Perhaps Section 508 unwisely abridges presidential discretion in foreign policy, where presidents arguably deserve the almost unfettered discretion they, with increasing aggressiveness, assert everywhere. And perhaps if Obama were not compiling such a remarkable record of indifference to law, it would be sensible to ignore his ignoring of this one.
But remember Libya. Since the War Powers Resolution was passed over Richard Nixon’s veto in 1973, presidents have at least taken care to act “consistent with” its limits on unilateral presidential war-making. Regarding Libya, however, Obama was unprecedentedly cavalier, even though he had ample time to act consistent with the Constitution by involving a supportive Congress. As Yale Law School’s Bruce Ackerman then argued:
“Obama has overstepped even the dubious precedent set when President Bill Clinton bombed Kosovo in 1999. Then, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel asserted that Congress had given its consent by appropriating funds for the Kosovo campaign. It was a big stretch, given the actual facts — but Obama can’t even take advantage of this same desperate expedient, since Congress has appropriated no funds for the Libyan war. The president is simply using money appropriated to the Pentagon for general purposes to conduct the current air campaign.”
Obama is as dismissive of red lines he draws as he is of laws others enact. Last week, a State Department spokeswoman said his red line regarding chemical weapons was first crossed “a couple of months ago” and “the president took action” — presumably, announcing (non-lethal) aid to Syrian rebels — although “we’re not going to outline the inventory of what we did.”
The administration now would do well to do something that the head of it has an irresistible urge not to do: Stop talking.
If a fourth military intervention is coming, it will not be to decisively alter events, which we cannot do, in a nation vital to U.S. interests, which Syria is not. Rather, its purpose will be to rescue Obama from his words.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.