Libya, Obama, and the Five-Second Rule
Posted March 24, 2011
We all know “the five second rule.” Drop food on the floor and if you pick it up before that span of time elapses, and it’ll still be “good.” There is also a life-and-death version of this: the five-day rule, by which we have surrendered to any U.S. President the right to kill people in our name, provided he only does it for a couple of days.
I’m not defending this policy, I am simply stating that at some point in the last 60 years it has been established. And from the Bay of Pigs, to Reagan’s Trophy War in Granada, to President Clinton’s bombing of Iraq, to President Clinton’s bombing of Sudan, to President Clinton’s bombing of Libya — “the horse of undeclared war” has pretty much left the barn.
Nevertheless. After that Imperial period of a few days, a President – this one included – is required to either call it off, or justify why it must continue, or maybe even follow the Constitution and get approval from Congress by explaining the threat to this country that rationalizes the continuing action. Especially when we now have American pilots bailing out over hostile territory.
Not only have not yet we gotten this from President Obama about Libya, but five days into our involvement in bombing, what we are getting is a series of extraordinarily mixed messages. And none could be more stark than what he said, compared to what his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said:
From the President, Monday — quoting: “It is U-S Policy that Qaddafi needs to go.”
From the Chairman, Sunday — quoting. “It’s not about seeing him go,” unquote. He added that the mission might be accomplished even if Qaddafi stays in power.
And from the President’s War Powers letter to Congress… quoting: “United States forces are conducting a limited and well-defined mission in support of international efforts to protect civilians and prevent a humanitarian disaster. Accordingly, U.S. forces have targeted the Qadhafi regime’s air defense systems, command and control structures, and other capabilities of Qadhafi’s armed forces used to attack civilians and civilian populated areas.”
So. This is about making sure Qaddafi goes. Except, it’s not about making sure he goes. Except it’s about making sure he can’t attack his own civilians.
If, Mr. President, you some day want to announce “Mission Accomplished” about this, there is no easier route than to identify two mutually exclusive outcomes as the Mission.
I wish the conflict in goals ended there, but it does not.
Your War Powers Message also included the news that “we will seek a rapid, but responsible transition of operations to coalition, regional, or international organizations that are postured to continue activities as may be necessary to realize the objectives…”
Except this seems to be news to those “coalition, regional, or international organizations.” The British Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, said responsibility would be transferred to NATO. The French Foreign Minister, M’sieu Juppe, said the Arab League would not accept control of the operation being given to NATO. But Turkey opposed the use of force by NATO and was promptly excluded from a NATO meeting to plan that use of force. In case the situation is not confused enough, the Turkish Prime Minister Mr. Erdogan said Turkey did not object to NATO’s participation, providing the organization could assure him the action would be brief and there would be no occupation – which simply seems to send us right back to where we were earlier with the “five-second rule” of when and for how long it’s ok to kill people.
The metaphorical five seconds has expired, Mr. President. We are not clear why we are fighting, who exactly we are fighting with, who the ‘rebels’ are that we’re fighting for, what a No-Fly Zone accomplishes with a dictator who has ground troops, how long we are to be there, to whom we are to “hand-off,” and why, Sir, if we are intervening on behalf of civilians at risk, why we did not do so in Egypt, why we are not doing so in places like Bahrain, and – if the local government were to somehow screw-up the containment at the Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, if this new doctrine would somehow permit us to go in and try to take over Japan.
The longer we go, President Obama, without a clear and compelling argument for why we are doing whatever we are doing, and how soon you are going to stop doing it, the more room there will be for explanations such as those provided by Congressman Ed Markey, and by the Dictator Qaddafi himself.
The latter, Mr. President, said “We will not leave our oil to America or France or Britain or the enemy Christian states that are aligned now against us.” The Brookings Institution helpfully translated this phrase tersely. It means either he intends to blow up Libya’s oil infra-structure, or he intends to wait us out, and then if he prevails, to give all his nation’s oil business to countries who stayed out of this, like, say…China.
The less crazy summary of this came from Congressman Markey. Seven words: Quote: “We are in Libya because of oil.”
This, Mr. President, is not the impression you want to leave with the people of this country.
Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News – of all of those people – just recounted the story of how a previous President vowed to handle Qaddafi after a previous external outrage – and at just about the same time of year. He bombed Tripoli, then went off to throw out a first pitch at the opening game of the baseball season. One of the players at the game told that President that he was worried about Qaddafi and the Libyans. That President told the athlete not to be worried. He supposedly pointed to the bench in the dugout and said of Qaddafi, quote, “We ought to nail his (privates) to that log over there and push him over.”
That President was Ronald Reagan, and this was after the Berlin Disco bombing, and thus the 25th anniversary of empty, vague, and unfulfilled threats against Qaddafi happens next month. Qaddafi has outlasted four presidents, going so far as to con the last of them, George W. Bush, into actually saying that Qaddafi had ‘renounced terrorism’ and merited immunity from the lawsuits over the Lockerbie bombing, plus a visit from Condi Rice, and the home version of the “Play the U.S. like a two-dollar banjo” Game.
Now — as ever — Libya is enticing yet a fifth U-S President to try to have his cake and eat it, too – before he drops it and the five-second rule applies. He will not commit to war, he will stand as far back from war-like actions as he can, and he believes it’s about Qaddafi “going” while his Joint Chiefs Chair says it isn’t.
Chairman Mullen said something else which kind of sums this quagmire up. Quoting again: “The goals are limited.” This is the fifth Administration for which that’s been true. Once again, it’s just too bad that we don’t really know…. what the goals are.
Mr. President, it’s time you made those goals clear… and then let us decide whether or not we agree with you.