When Even Yoo Thinks You’ve Gone Too Far
June 23, 2011

Photograph of John Yoo.

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Monday’s New York Times had the essential op-ed regarding the legality of our war/not-war with Libya. As Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman tells it, the Office of Legal Counsel — the administration’s “authoritative voice on matters of legal interpretation” — told the president that he would have to cease military action in Libya, because to not do so would be in violation of the War Powers Act. The administration disregarded this advice and had a separate group of attorneys and advisers whip up a strained redefinition of the word “war” to justify their case that the bombing could continue unabated.

As Ackerman points out, this is actually a step or two beyond the precedent set by the Bush administration. Bush’s decision to place John Yoo within the OLC heavily compromised the quality of that office’s legal opinions, but at least the Bush-era White House never directly contravened those opinions. At worst, the OLC remained a theoretical check on the power of the president.

No longer. By flouting an OLC ruling, Obama has gone too far even for Yoo. That’s John Yoo we’re talking about folks: the guy who considers the power of the executive so expansive that the president can legally authorize child abuse.

Overruling the OLC, as Obama has, is bad enough in a vacuum. But recall that this White House also reserves the right to act based on secret interpretations of controversial laws. Which makes you wonder: if the executive branch can interpret laws in secret, and those legal interpretations are no longer subject to even internal quality control, then what’s left? Does this White House acknowledge any meaningful checks on its legal authority? What does it think the president can’t do?

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Consensus Building for Escalation
April 27, 2011

(en) Libya Location (he) מיקום לוב

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The New York Times gives retired lieutenant general James Dubik a platform to do it.

Unlike the Bosnian Croats in 1995 and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001, the rebel forces in Libya are too disorganized to take advantage of NATO air support. To give them a fighting chance, NATO must put military advisers and combat air controllers on the ground — not just British, French and Italian, but also a small number of American ones.

These advisers would help bolster the weak rebel army’s organization and capabilities while ground controllers could mark targets, identify the forward movement of rebel forces, and distinguish civilians from fighters more effectively than pilots can from their cockpits. Such measures are essential, but they would require relaxing the Obama administration’s prohibition on the use of American ground forces.

This course of action would not defeat Colonel Qaddafi’s forces overnight, but it would put far more pressure on his regime and potentially protect more civilians in more of the country. If Colonel Qaddafi falls, the United States and NATO will have a responsibility to help shape the postwar order, including providing security to prevent a liberated Libya from sinking into chaos.

But why? Oh, right. Because we’re already in it, but not yet in it to win it. “The charade is over: America has intervened in a civil war with the de facto aim of regime change in Libya,” writes Dubik. “Washington must now accept that decision and face its consequences.”

Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming. Dubik could have written this column back when the bombing first started and asked the Times to sit on it for a month. Of course the United States and NATO’s initial military commitment would be barely enough to force a stalemate in Libya. And of course the minute that stalemate became the new status quo our most serious publications would begin running op-eds encouraging the United States to put boots on the ground.

Will we? I hope not, for so many reasons. But I didn’t think we were going to bomb Libya in the first place, and we did. This is the logical next step.

If and when it happens, I wonder what we’ll hear from the folks who actually believed Obama’s promise of a limited engagement. “He lied to us?” Well, maybe. But I suspect he believed, just as they did. The worst lie was the one they told themselves.

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We Don’t Declare War Anymore, We Just Declare Quagmire
April 13, 2011

I’ve written before that our war in Libya contains many of the ingredients for quagmire. At the top of the list: the gap between our objectives and what can actually be accomplished with the resources we’ve committed thus far. The sort of limited engagement we’re attempting may minimize American risk in the short term, but in the long term it can’t secure the rebel victory unofficially sought by the United States. So that leaves us with three options: (A) withdrawal, (B) stalemate, or (C) a gradual escalation of our military commitment. The problem with gradual escalations, of course, is that they can be met with corresponding escalations on the other side. So while (B) and (C) both smell like quagmire to me, at least (B) would be significantly less bloody.

The question is why the White House, if it really believed Gaddafi had to go, would put us in this position instead of making a significant military commitment from the get-go and laying out clear, unambiguous objectives. One reason: that’s the sort of thing that makes it look like you’re at war with someone. And as Scott Horton wrote for Foreign Policy yesterday, the OLC’s whole legal rationale for the Obama administration’s actions is predicated on the notion that this isn’t a real war.

Think about the precedent we’re setting here. Obama’s DoJ, adopting the Bush administration’s legal rationales, has decided that the executive’s power to deploy the American military is virtually unchecked by any domestic power. The only caveat: the strength of that deployment is capped at a level that makes quagmire seem very, very plausible.

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Class and Humanitarian Intervention
April 12, 2011

I’ve been slacking off on the blogging lately, which is why it took me no less than six days for me to shamelessly hype my latest Salon column in this space. Turns out the topic is still relevant, though I get no pleasure from saying so.

The piece lays out the argument that part of the reason we’re embroiled in yet another hazily-defined, ill-considered military conflict is that the rich are very nearly this country’s only meaningful political constituency, and the costs of warfare are, for them, very low.

I struggle to phrase the thesis in a way that doesn’t come off sort of tortured or overparsed because you’ve got to be careful when making arguments like this. This is a structural argument, and people who aren’t intuitively sympathetic to the starting premises of such arguments — in this case, that intervention in Libya was a bad idea — tend to respond oddly to everything that follows. Myself included. We’ve got some sort of neurological block on structural arguments so that they tend to get broken down into much muddier sub-arguments about intent and whose fault everything is.

So for the record: I’m not saying rich people hate poor people, or Libyans, or poor Libyans. Nor am I saying rich people love war, or humanitarian interventions, or whatever. The point is one about shared burden. Actual shared burden, not Paul Ryan’s crypto-Randian notion of what that’s supposed to mean. When you’ve got a group of people whose interests policy makers disproportionately represent, and those people are unaffected by the consequences of a state of perpetual warfare, than policy makers have few incentives to avoid perpetual warfare. And that’s where we are now. And here, again, is the column.

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“Coalition” is a Euphemism
March 21, 2011

One of the points that I keep hearing over and over again from liberal defenders of intervention in Libya is that this is a multilateral effort conceived through official UN channels. The US, they say, will play only a minor role in a broad coalition of states, meaning there will be no undue strain on our already depleted resources.

Yesterday I said I was skeptical of that claim, because I expected this to be a prolonged struggle during which the United States would be required to accept a gradually increasing portion of the burden. But it turns out that even there I was being optimistic: I expected it to happen in a matter of weeks, not immediately. Via Justin Elliot, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reports:

Despite the White House attempts to make this look like it’s a huge coalition effort — obviously it required coalition political support — but for now the U.S. military is not only in the lead but conducting almost all military operations, with only minor participation from the French, as you mentioned, even British fighters over night. There’s a U.S. commander. And even this morning I talked to senior military officials, when I asked them how soon will the U.S. turn over the command to the coalition — and the indication is the U.S. military is in no hurry to do that.

If this continues for much longer, then the only conclusion we can draw is that the “coalition” is little more than a PR gimmick designed to provide an aura of legitimacy to America’s latest military misadventure — while also making the coalition’s more apathetic members seem tough on war criminals. I can’t decide which part is more amazing: that such a ploy seems to be working, or that “internationalism” has come to mean the same old senseless brutality, this time blessed with the gauzy halo of UN sanction.

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Mission Creep
March 20, 2011

The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Image via Wikipedia

Friday’s presidential address has done absolutely nothing to quell my profound misgivings regarding military action in Libya. In fact, it confirmed my suspicion that no one — including the White House — can say with any confidence what it is we’re getting ourselves into. Consider this statement:

I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing. The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya. In the coming weeks, we will continue to help the Libyan people with humanitarian and economic assistance so that they can fulfill their aspirations peacefully.

Protecting civilians is certainly a noble cause. But is it a well-defined goal? Not really. It’s just an admirable sentiment dressed up as a strategic objective. What I want to hear is where the White House thinks this should end: with Gaddafi chastened but still in power? With a democratic Libyan regime? Two states, one controlled by Gaddafi and the other by the rebels? The phrase “fulfill their aspirations” seems to indicate options B or C. But given the current state of affairs, I don’t know how either of those options could be realized “peacefully.”

It gets worse. Though I’m sure the “no ground troops” pledge was made in order to assuage intervention’s critics, it just makes me even more convinced that there’s no coherent strategy at work here. After all, there’s no such thing as a peacekeeping party composed entirely of cruise missiles; protecting civilians requires more than just exploding projectiles. Sure, the obvious response is that America’s pledge not to deploy ground troops only means that the rest of the coalition will cover the gap. But how plausible is it that, really? Britain and France are going to happily dispatch their own infantry while the United States — which, even in its weakened state, has the mightiest armed forces on earth — takes a knee? Beginning with a pledge not to use ground troops is almost worse than the alternative, because it means any eventual deployment will be an escalation of a preexisting conflict. Gradual escalations, remember, are often how quagmires begin.

Even if this conflict never becomes a full-on quagmire, you had better believe that Gaddafi will drag it out for as long as possible. The atrocities he has already committed have likely ruled out any sort of peaceful, Mubarak-style abdication. His only remaining options are prosecution for crimes against humanity (charges the International Criminal Court is already investigating), death, or somehow keeping this going for long enough to break the political will behind the coalition so that he may retain control over some or all of Libya. The lattermost of those possibilities is the by far the most distant, but I suspect he would rather die trying to achieve it than give up and submit to judgment at The Hague.

In other words, this is not a man susceptible to threats or negotiation. That leads me to believe that this can only end either with full-on regime change or a divided Libya. The latter would probably be another regional conflict waiting to happen; I have no idea what the former would be. We know too little about the composition of the resistance movement too make any firm predictions, much less the nuances of Libyan tribal politics. But I do know this: the United States and our coalition allies are making a huge gamble. Nothing about this indicates to me that it is an acceptable one.

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The Backwards Logic of Intervention
March 18, 2011

UN Security Council Chamber in New York.

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I was just 11 years old when the United States declared war on Afghanistan and thirteen when we invaded Iraq. Those two wars played an instrumental role and shaping my political sensibility. Needless to say, I can’t separate my experience growing up with those two wars from my intuitions regarding the UN Security Council’s vote to intervene in Libya. Maybe coming of age in a nation at war left me with anxieties and prejudices that are now hopelessly muddling those intuitions. I hope that’s the case, and I hope I’m dead wrong on Libya. Because right now, I don’t see a good outcome to military intervention.

I’d probably feel differently if the vote had come a couple weeks earlier, when the rebels still had the upper hand. Not that I supported active military intervention even then, but I definitely thought the United States and the international community should have been playing a more active role in shaping events on the ground. Checking off a few items on this list would have been nice. Anything to keep the momentum on the side of the anti-Gaddafi forces while keeping the odds of yet another American military entanglement to an absolute minimum.

But we missed our window. By all accounts, the winds have shifted back in Gaddafi’s favor, and I suspect that means tilting things back in the opposition’s favor will require a significantly larger commitment than I originally envisioned. A no-fly zone — that is, a “humanitarian half measure” — won’t cut it. That’s why the resolution includes some ominously open-ended language, allowing for a much deeper level of engagement.

The one option the resolution does preclude, fortunately, is that of a “foreign occupation force.” That term might mean something more specific in international law than is commonly understood — I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that we have little idea what shape a post-Gaddafi Libyan government would take, and a whole lot of disparate parties that would like to mold such a government to their benefit. Even if we don’t end up as occupiers (which I still don’t think is a sure thing), this sounds like a recipe for long-term military entanglement of some kind or another.

In other words, I don’t think we know what we’re getting ourselves into. And for that reason, we can’t possibly have a sound strategy for eventually getting out. Which is a tremendous bummer for a lot of reasons, the least of which is this: I honestly didn’t expect this sort of stuff to happen under the leadership President Obama. I thought our days of military adventurism were, well, not over exactly, but dwindling. Sure, I didn’t have any illusions about withdrawing from Afghanistan during the Obama presidency, but it never occurred to me that we might risk yet another unforced quagmire. I figured that, at the very least, Iraq and Afghanistan had left Democratic policy makers with a hefty dose of martial humility.

Turns out no such luck. I failed to take into account a few big factors. Such as the fact that institutional memory is short and bureaucratic inertia is huge. Such as the network of incentives that allow policy makers, pundits, corporate leaders and military brass to net significant short-term benefit from a push for war. I don’t mean to be cynical: I do think the most strident advocates of this military intervention firmly believe that it is just and good. And hell, I can’t say with 100% certainty that they’re wrong. But I think they probably are, and I’m dismayed to watch this play out anyway.

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