Libya and Obama’s Embrace of the Imperial Presidency

kadaffi fleeingOne of the biggest problems of allowing a chief executive like George W. Bush to run roughshod over the Constitution is that it sets precedents. Now, President Barack Obama believes that as commander-in-chief he has the power to order the U.S. military into battle. By attacking Libya he has greatly expanded the unchecked executive powers that Bush’s excesses and overreach established.

The good news is that, unlike the Iraq invasion, the United Nations has given the Libyan operation its imprimatur, rendering it “legal” in terms of international law. The bad news is that the United States Congress, the only Constitutionally-recognized war-making body, was rendered irrelevant in the process. As other commentators have pointed out: if President Obama can bomb Libya without a Congressional resolution authorizing him to do so, then a President Barbour or a President Palin can bomb Iran without going to Congress too. In fact, any future president could wake up on the wrong side of the bed one morning and begin firing off the Tomahawks at some hapless country.

And it’s a little late to be talking about keeping the “footprint” of the American military action in Libya “light” and the operation “small” when the United States is already occupying two other Muslim countries of about 25 million people each.

Whenever the U.S. bombs a country the recent record shows pretty clearly that it always ends up being far more destructive than originally promised and the targets are often the state-run enterprises (parastatals) that multinational corporations (and free marketeers of all stripes) despise with a passion. The U.S. did it in Serbia. It did it in Iraq too. Privatization via bombing.

The United States military is ill-suited for “humanitarian” interventions because, once the violence is unleashed, it inevitably has a tendency to escalate and move in unpredictable directions. There are also so many seen and unseen ulterior motives to these periodic spasms of violence and the occupations that follow that they defy being labeled “humanitarian.” When President Bill Clinton launched the U.S. military against Serbia for “humanitarian” purposes, it quickly targeted just about all of the remaining state-run enterprises. Those were the exact types of public institutions that any post-war Serbian government needed to rebuild and begin to meet the “humanitarian” needs of its people. The same phenomenon occurred when President Bush took the nation to war in Iraq. In addition to the WMD scare, even the “shock and awe” campaign claimed to have had a “humanitarian” component. (Remember all those neo-cons shedding tears over the plight of the Kurds and chatting up Saddam’s “rape rooms?”) But once again, Iraq’s state-run enterprises came under blistering air assault, and then Paul Bremer went in and privatized the whole goddamned country.

The only thing the French and Italian governments care about is maintaining their corporations’ access to Libya’s light, sweet crude oil. It strains credulity that they’ve just discovered that after 40 years that Muammar Gaddafi is a despot. He’s fighting against a revolution and killing his own people and he deserves to be condemned by the world community. But how pulverizing the infrastructure of Libya with Tomahawk cruise missiles and 2,000-pound bombs is going to alter the political equation inside Libya is anybody’s guess. Libyan politics and the Libyan people themselves are going to have to sort it out one way or another. Remember, the Vietnam War was a “liberal” intervention with all of the same “humanitarian” trappings we hear today about Libya. In Vietnam, as we see happening in Afghanistan, as the United States military grew more and more powerful in the country, the U.S. political position among the indigenous population grew weaker and weaker.

Each Tomahawk cruise missile costs approximately between $750,000 and $1.5 million. If the average salary of a schoolteacher is $50,000 a year then — Poof! — with every single Tomahawk goes with it the taxpayer resources to pay 15 to 20 teachers’ annual salaries. Raytheon Corporation must be stoked. And this doesn’t count all of the money it takes to fly around-the-clock sorties with stealth bombers and all the other whiz-bang gadgetry money can buy. The Libyan operation once again exposes the obscenely skewed priorities of a society that slashes programs for the health and education of its citizens in order to feed a “national security” beast that devours over $700 billion a year.

President Obama’s handling of the Libyan operation, like his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan, shows he has clearly embraced the imperial presidency. In displaying “toughness” against Gaddafi and in Afghanistan, Obama diverts attention from his own obsequiousness to power domestically. He gave Wall Street a get-out-of-jail-free card because he didn’t want to take the political risk involved in confronting the predators who collapsed the economy. He looked foolish when he advocated streamlining the licensing for more offshore deep-water oil drilling (a gift to Big Oil) just weeks before the BP/Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He looks foolish having promoted nuclear power as part of his “green” energy initiative (a gift to the nuclear industry) now that the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster has once again illustrated the potential costs of that particular energy source.

Joseph PalermoHe looks foolish calling for “staying the course” in Afghanistan even though the American people changed the channel on that war about five years ago giving Haley Barbour — Haley Barbour! — a political opening to criticize Obama by posing as a “peace” candidate. And if this Libya operation moves in an unpredictable direction, for instance, a Gaddafi-inspired terrorist attack against Americans requiring a “response,” then Obama might appear foolish once again getting the U.S. waist-deep in another Big Muddy.

Joseph Palermo
Joseph Palermo’s Blog

Published by the LA Progressive on March 24, 2011
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).

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