Obama oversteps again
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.
He explained his sashay into Libya's 2011 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 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.”
Words are so marvelously malleable in the Obama administration, the definition of “coup” 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.” The White House 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 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.
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 F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.
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