Voice

Obama, we're at war. Stop insulting us.

Not that FP has suddenly become joke central, but there's an old joke that runs like this:

An accountant, a social scientist and a lawyer are seated in a room. A guy walks in and asks them: "how much is 2 + 2?" The accountant whips out a calculator, pencils and paper, scribbles for awhile, and then says: "The answer, sir, is 4." The social scientist grabs her laptop, fires it up a few minutes, and then says "Well, as you know this is not an exact science, but I can say with a 95% level of confidence that the answer is between 3 and 5."

The lawyer, meanwhile, gets up, looks under all the chairs, checks in the closet, opens the door to the room and looks both ways down the hall. Then he comes back, sidles up to the guy who asked the question, and whispers:

"I don't care. How much do you want it to be?"

I mention this because I learned that the Obama administration is claiming that it doesn't need congressional authorization for its Libyan intervention under the War Powers Act. Why? Because what we are doing doesn't amount to "full-blown" hostilities.

Oh, please. Let's start with the definition of "war" itself. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as "a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country." Now, let's see: what are we doing in Libya? What we know is that we've sent cruise missiles, and drones and U.S. aircraft to attack military targets in various places, including several attacks on Qaddafi's own compound. We are continuing to provide targeting information to our NATO allies, who are conducting additional raids on their own. Although U.S. ground troops are not present in force, it's a safe bet that U.S. special forces are operating in various places, probably helping provide some of that targeting info. And of course because the Obama administration isn't telling us everything that it's doing, we have no clear way of knowing exactly how involved we really are.

By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn't matter that we aren't using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn't being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether this war makes strategic sense or not. (I think not, but I can see the merits of the other side's case). They can also disagree about whether outside intervention was necessary to avert an anticipated "bloodbath" in Benghazi, or whether it was really a precipitous decision that may in the end make things worse. But let's not fall for the creative legal sophistry being offered up here. If Obama and his foreign policy team think this war (yes, war) is really in our interest, then they should make their case to the American people and their elected representatives and let the chips fall where they may. I don't have enormous respect for Congress (who could, these days?) but that's how a republic is supposed to operate. And let's not forget that Obama used to think so himself.

Postscript: Lest readers think that I'm ticked off because I'm jet-lagged, or because my trip is not going well, let me just say that I'm feeling perfectly fine, the weather here in Dublin is sensational and my Irish hosts at the IIEA couldn't have been more gracious. I'm just disappointed, but not for the first time.

Jeramy Spivey/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

When it comes to real reform, Obama's bark is bigger than his bite

I'm off to Europe this evening, and blogging will be light-to-non-existent for the rest of the week, depending a bit on internet access. First stop is Dublin, where I'll be giving a lecture on Obama's foreign policy at the Institute for International and European Affairs. It's not a particularly upbeat assessment-though I will give Obama credit for some positive steps -- and more and more I think he's in for a real dog-fight in the 2012 election. 

We all know that he inherited a bleak economic picture, two losing wars, and an American whose global image was in free-fall. He's done a lot to repair America's overall image, and the administration's initial response to the financial crisis clearly averted a more serious and lasting meltdown. But with the passage of time, it's become clearer that Obama is more comfortable with bold rhetoric than bold action. With some rare exceptions -- the raid that took out Osama bin Laden being an obvious example -- it's been a pretty tepid and unimaginative presidency and at a moment in history where bigger and harder decisions were needed. He put together a financial rescue package, but it was smaller than necessary and it didn't do much to reform the overall financial system. He got a health care bill passed, but in a watered-down form that won't make that much difference to health care costs. And apart from the initial stimulus package, there wasn't a sustained focus on job creation, which is coming back to haunt him now.

On foreign policy, he's getting out of Iraq, but very slowly. Instead of cutting our losses in Afghanistan and focusing on more serious problems, he chose a half-hearted "surge" instead and will have trouble selling Afghanistan as a success story when he campaigns next year. He gives great speeches on the Middle East but doesn't follow through with policy change, so he can't claim any progress there either. He's done better in strengthening ties in Asia and I get the impression that he'd like to get us out of our current quagmires and focus even more attention there  (which would be smart), but then he sends us into a strategically pointless intervention in Libya.  

In short, it's not clear exactly what big achievements Obama is going to tout when he heads out on the hustings next year. You don't get much credit for helping avert disasters that didn't actually happen (like a spiral into another Great Depression), and it's already clear that the GOP field is going to beat him up repeatedly over the sluggish economy and the high unemployment numbers. And don't expect the Republican House to lift a finger to help on that front, no matter how many Americans suffer as a result. Foreign policy issues won't play much role in the campaign, but it's hard for me to think of any big wins that will sway many voters, and most people will have forgotten about our getting bin Laden by the time they enter the voting both. So if I were one of the people who write for FP's' "Shadow Government," I'd be keeping my CV up-to-date.

After spending Bloomsday sightseeing in Dublin (a city I've never visited), I'm off to a conference in France on Friday. The topic is "The Middle East and World Order: A Continued Focus of Transatlantic Concern," and there will be an interesting collection of people from Europe, the Middle East and the United States in attendance. I'm especially interested to hear how these problems look from outside the United States, and although the proceedings are "off-the-record", I'll try to pass along any pearls of wisdom (suitably anonymized) that I glean from the exchanges.   

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images