Mars in the descendant
America is tired of war. That would suit Barack Obama, if not for the one he entered in Libya
Jun 23rd 2011 | from the print edition
“I VENTURE to say that no war can be long carried on against the will of the people.” Edmund Burke should be alive today. None of America’s several wars is popular. According to a Pew Research poll this week, a majority of Americans (56%) now believe that their troops should come home from Afghanistan as soon as possible. Only 39% favour waiting for the situation there to stabilise, even though most still think that the original decision to go to war was right. In the case of Libya there was never any equivalent enthusiasm to intervene in the fighting between Muammar Qaddafi and the rebels. And most Americans are delighted that the present plan is to quit Iraq by the end of this year.
America has reason to be war-weary. Since September 2001 it has spent some $1.3 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which some 6,000 service personnel have died. Even conservative Republicans, the group keenest on “staying the course”, have started to tell pollsters that America should pay less attention to problems overseas and more to the growing ones at home. In their New Hampshire debate several Republican presidential candidates joined the cry to bring the boys home—“as soon as we possibly can,” said Mitt Romney, the putative front-runner.
For Barack Obama, these signs of Republican softening are a godsend. Many in his own party hate the war in Afghanistan. Some were aghast when, in 2009, he ordered the deployment of 33,000 more troops in an Iraq-style “surge”. He always planned to announce the return of some of them this summer. But too fast a withdrawal would have exposed him to charges of wavering against al-Qaeda. Now the Republicans’ own wobbles, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the public’s spreading war fatigue and the transfer of the gung-ho General David Petraeus from Afghanistan to the CIA have given the president unexpected flexibility.
On June 22nd Mr Obama announced that all the surge troops will be out by the end of next summer. This will leave about 68,000 behind, and Mr Obama where he wants to be as the 2012 election nears: out of the “dumb” war in Iraq and carefully but visibly winding down (see Banyan) the one in Afghanistan. The tide of war is receding, says Mr Obama; now it is time for nation-building at home, “to reclaim the American dream”.
At home, however, the least costly of America’s wars, the one in Libya, is turning into a serious headache. Mr Obama’s grounds for intervening were simple enough. Only America had the means to stop Colonel Qaddafi from perpetrating a massacre in Benghazi. But this war was never popular. Many Democrats, traumatised by Iraq, say that such ventures are bound to fail, however noble the cause. Many Republicans hold that the nobility of the cause is itself the problem. With no vital American interest at stake, argues Michele Bachmann, another of the Republicans’ presidential candidates, the “Obama doctrine” has set a precedent for American intervention in “one country after another”.
Going into one country after another is in fact the last thing on the mind of this hyper-cautious president. No American drones are stopping the slaughter in Syria. Even in Libya Mr Obama was a reluctant warrior. He acted only when Benghazi was on the brink of falling, and only after securing cover and help from NATO, the UN and the Arab League. He also insisted that America’s European allies, who had goaded him into the war, should take over the chief responsibility for it in short order. If Libya was going to end in a mess, the president who inherited the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan wanted someone else to be in charge of it.
It all made perfect sense, at the beginning
The trouble is that Libya’s dictator has hung on—perhaps precisely because the superpower has chosen to stand back. And standing back has meanwhile not earned Mr Obama the political credit he hoped for. If anything, the opposite has happened.
The White House boasts that since early April America has had only a “non-kinetic”, “supporting” role in Libya. It has no troops on the ground and is not exchanging fire with hostile forces (unless you count the odd drone strike). That makes the war cheaper for America while allies do the dirtier work—the opposite of the dismal pattern in Afghanistan. This looked like a perfectly splendid arrangement, until one of Mr Obama’s advisers was quoted as describing it as “leading from behind”.
Such a phrase should never have been uttered in the hearing of a journalist. Since its publication in theNew Yorker, “leading from behind” has become a prime exhibit in the Republicans’ scornful excoriation of Mr Obama’s foreign policy. The president now finds himself accused of being both a warmonger for entering the war and a wimp for his lame prosecution of it.
To make matters worse, he now denies that it is a war at all. Under the War Powers Resolution a president must ask Congress’s permission if hostilities last more than 90 days. That deadline fell on June 17th, but Mr Obama did not ask, on the eccentric ground that America’s “supporting role” no longer amounts to “hostilities”. This has outraged even the war’s supporters, especially since the disclosure that Mr Obama overruled the lawyers in the Justice and Defence Departments and turned to more pliant ones in the White House and State Department. Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale, said in the New York Times that this could open the way for “even more blatant acts of presidential war-making in the decades ahead”.
It is odd. A weary America has adopted Mr Obama’s wary instincts in foreign policy. He is making a good fist of extricating America from the big wars he inherited from George Bush. But the tiny one he entered so cautiously himself, in which not a single American soldier has died, has brought him disproportionate grief. Even before it disposed of bin Laden, America had lost its appetite for venturing abroad in search of monsters to destroy.