The most important content of presidential speeches is often what they don't say. Here are some things that President Obama didn't say about Libya in his speech last night.
The president did not answer his critics who asked why he took America into war without authorization by Congress. This question was made sharper on Sunday when Jake Tapper of ABC asked Defense Secretary Gates, “Do you think Libya posed an actual or imminent threat to the United States?”
“No, no,” was Gates' reply. “It was not – it was not a vital national interest to the United States, but it was an interest and it was an interest for all of the reasons Secretary Clinton talked about.”
The significance of Tapper's question was that Tapper used the exact language that Obama used as a candidate for president in describing the limits of the authority of the president under the Constitution to initiate hostilities without Congressional authorization:
“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
Apparently Defense Secretary Gates does not think that the situation in Libya met the standard that candidate Obama set in December 2007 for acting without Congressional authorization.
But in President Obama's speech, the word “Congress” was only mentioned once: the president says he ordered military action “after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress.” Of course, a meeting with Congressional leaders is not at all the same thing as Congressional debate and authorization. Congressional debate and authorization allows the public to have a say through their representatives. A meeting with Congressional leaders does not. This military operation was planned for weeks and discussed with other countries for weeks; there was plenty of time to seek Congressional approval.
The president did not in his speech clarify what the exit strategy is.
He told us “the lead” will “transition to our allies and partners.” But the US is the lead country in NATO, which is taking responsibility for the military operation. As long as NATO is fighting in Libya, the US is fighting in Libya, and US taxpayers are paying for it. Others will be paying too, but the consolation of knowing that others will be sharing your burden is decreased substantially if no one will tell you how big the burden will be.
Nor did the president clarify what the true military objective is. The president said, “our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives.”
But as The New York Times reports, “Even as President Obama on Monday described a narrower role for the United States in a NATO-led operation,” the US military has been carrying out an “expansive and increasingly potent air campaign,” amounting to “an all-out assault on Libya's military.”
According to the Times, the real military mission is this:
The strategy for White House officials nervous that the Libya operation could drag on for weeks or months, even under a NATO banner, is to hit Libyan forces hard enough to force them to oust Colonel Qaddafi, a result that Mr. Obama has openly encouraged.
According to the Times, the US has established a military strategy of removing Qaddafi from power indirectly: keep killing Libyan soldiers until they demand that Qaddafi leave.
The administration says this is not going beyond what was approved by the UN Security Council. But that doesn't pass the laugh test. The UN Security Council never approved a military mission to overthrow the Libyan government.
Now that removal of Qaddafi has apparently been established as a US military oobjective, suppose that the current means of achieving this military objective – keep killing Libyan soldiers until they demand that Qaddafi leave – fails to achieve it. Which is more likely, in the absence of an external constraint: that the US will abandon this military objective, or that the US will pursue more aggressive military means to achieve it?
This is why Congress should pass legislation now limiting the scope of the US military operation in Libya, whether by prohibiting the introduction of ground troops, or by establishing a timetable or financial cap beyond which the administration will have to seek explicit Congressional authorization. In the absence of Congressional action, if we get to a point where the administration concedes that achievement of its military objective would require further military escalation, it may be too late politically to stop that escalation.