Begging the question: Obama and Libya

December 6, 2012

Last night I finished reading “Obama’s Way,” a lengthy feature on Barack Obama, the Libyan military intervention and the president’s decision-making process. Michael Lewis’ article has a publication date of Oct. 5 of this year, so I am definitely behind the curve on this; Vanity Fair’s nearly 14,000-word opus was meant to make a big pre-election splash.

I don’t think Lewis breaks any major news in his story. Rather, he fills in some details. Based on news accounts as well as Mark Bowden’s book The Finish (which ironically was published after Lewis’ piece), I’ve always considered Obama to be a very deliberate, cool and calculating decision-maker, despite the many forces that frequently put competing claims on the president.

That’s just what Lewis portrays. And he adds numerous colorful details, some pulled from one or more flights aboard Air Force One, others from at least one visit to Obama’s favored work and living spaces at the White House, and still more from one of the president’s nigh-legendary hard-fought, sharp-elbowed recreational basketball games.

One of the most fascinating things in the article comes around the two-thirds point, as Lewis gives a comprehensive (and incredibly divergent) account of two March 15, 2011, meetings between Obama and his security team. Both gatherings concerned the Libyan civil war and how, if at all, the United States should respond to it.

Early on, the first meeting went off track. The two options on the table were establishing a no-fly zone over Libya and doing nothing.

Unfortunately, the first option would have been a meaningless gesture at best. As Lewis writes, naming a city that has now become grimly familiar to the American public:

Muammar Qaddafi and his army of 27,000 men were marching across the Libyan desert toward a city called Ben­gha­zi and were promising to exterminate some large number of the 1.2 million people inside. ….

Qaddafi wasn’t flying. His army was racing across the North African desert in jeeps and tanks.

Having been told, as anticipated, that suppressing the Libyan military’s nonexistent air campaign against the rebels served no practical purpose:

Obama then proceeded to call on every single person for his views, including the most junior people. “What was a little unusual,” Obama admits, “is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made.” The argument he had wanted to hear was the case for a more nuanced intervention—and a detailing of the more subtle costs to American interests of allowing the mass slaughter of Libyan civilians.

Interestingly, Lewis underplays (to my mind) the fact that Obama was fishing for something that he did not want to ask about directly. Here’s the rest of the previously quoted paragraph:

His desire to hear the case raises the obvious question: Why didn’t he just make it himself? “It’s the Heisenberg principle,” he says. “Me asking the question changes the answer. And it also protects my decision-­making.” But it’s more than that. His desire to hear out junior people is a warm personality trait as much as a cool tactic, of a piece with his desire to play golf with White House cooks rather than with C.E.O.’s and basketball with people who treat him as just another player on the court; to stay home and read a book rather than go to a Washington cocktail party; and to seek out, in any crowd, not the beautiful people but the old people. The man has his stat­us needs, but they are unusual. And he has a tendency, an unthinking first step, to subvert established stat­us structures. After all, he became president.

A president’s legacy is determined by more than the man himself and the events with which he contends. (Some day, the words “woman herself” and “she contends” will fit naturally into that sentence.) Another major factor is the people with whom he surrounds himself.

On March 15, Obama’s company in the Libya meetings included Pulitzer Price–winning author Samantha Power. Her landmark book A Problem from Hell concerns, Lewis writes, “the moral and political costs the U.S. has paid for largely ignoring modern genocides.” Another was a speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, who “said in the meeting that he preferred to explain why the United States had prevented a massacre over why it hadn’t.” Adds Lewis:

An N.S.C. staffer named Denis McDonough came out for intervention, as did Antony Blinken, who had been on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide, but now, awkwardly, worked for Joe Biden. “I have to disagree with my boss on this one,” said Blinken. As a group, the junior staff made the case for saving the Ben­gha­zis.

We all know what happened next — although many readers, myself included, may know little to nothing about Tyler Stark, an Air Force navigator whose plane was shot down over Libya. Lewis weaves an account of Stark’s descent to the dark and war-torn country throughout his profile of President Obama and his look at how the president made the politically dangerous and daring decision (effectively) to invade Libya.

The account of Stark’s experiences, again, breaks no new ground. Still, it’s a very useful and sobering reminder of the hazards that American service members bravely undertake on behalf of our safety (and, often, on behalf of the safety of others).

***

Speaking of breaking ground, Lewis makes an intriguing aside — almost a throwaway, really — to construction at the president’s residence.

Crossing the White House lawn on the way out that morning I passed a giant crater, surrounded by heavy machinery. For the better part of a year hordes of workmen have been digging and building something deep below the White House—though what it is no one who knows will really say. “Infrastructure” is the answer you get when you ask. But no one really does ask, much less insist on the public’s right to know. The president of the United States can’t move a bust in the Oval Office without facing a firestorm of disapproval. But he can dig a hole deep in his front yard and build an underground labyrinth and no one even asks what he’s up to.

Perhaps without meaning to, Lewis with this passage cuts to the heart of a key issue for American journalists in the post-9/11 era: What can and should be reported without endangering national security?

Since I’m playing press critic here, I’ll note that sometimes it’s hard to refute — or even to confirm — information provided by government (or private) officials. Leaving aside the question of whether anyone’s insisted on the public’s right to know about the White House construction project, at least a few people have asked about it. A quick search (“‘White House’ construction lawn”) led me to these stories about the supposed infrastructure project.

And let me turn a little scrutiny on Lewis himself here. With the Libyan offensive, President Obama devoted United States planes and drones to months of reconnaissance and bombing operations. The 1973 War Powers Resolution requires the chief executive to obtain congressional permission within two months after deploying troops to combat zones.

Obama, however, did not seek congressional permission within two months of the start of action against Libyan government forces. Instead, in May 2011, the administration issued a report asserting that American involvement was so limited that they did not challenge the War Powers Resolution requirements.

But the statute indicates that the president is subject to legal reporting and deployment requirements:

in any case in which United States Armed Forces are introduced—
(1) into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances;
(2) into the territory, airspace or waters of a foreign nation, while equipped for combat, except for deployments which relate solely to supply, replacement, repair, or training of such forces; ….

It defies belief — nay, the very definitions of words — to insist that the Libyan operation did not meet either of these triggers.

The president is not just a lawyer but one who lectured for 12 years at the prestigious University of Chicago; moreover, he taught constitutional law. Lewis demonstrates at length that Obama helped craft his philosophy on the use of force by writing the speech that he delivered upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. He writes that Obama, to paraphrase a key passage, understands the power of converting thoughts into words.

Obama can burrow deep into plain statutory language and construct an underhanded rationale against complying with it. Yet the journalist who seems to have gotten closer to the president than anyone else in four years doesn’t even ask why he did so.

“Obama’s Way” in many ways is a good work of journalism. But sadly, like Obama’s presidency itself, it’s undermined by extremely grave flaws.

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