National security staffer Ben Rhodes is the latest administration figure to proclaim that we can live with Moammar Gadaffi remaining in power. On Air Force One, Rhodes said, “It’s not about regime change.” The notion that we should risk American blood and treasure for a mission that would possibly leave Gaddafi in power is so outrageous that we can only hope the entire administration is, well, lying.
Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute e-mails me, “I’m sticking with my story: regime change is the only ‘acceptable’ outcome; Gaddafi is the ultimate target if not the immediate target. Failure to get him out is defeat, and defeat is bad. Also, a long and bloody war is bad. And ‘bad’ also includes domestically bad.” But Donnelly doesn’t approve of such subterfuge: “I suppose they think they’re being clever, but they only increase the risks by saying this kid of thing.”
The risks include paralyzing Libyan military figures trying to decide whether to join the opposition. The risks include other players in the region perceiving we are an unserious and unreliable superpower. And it risks losing domestic support as well. Donnelly explains, “Also, you see the natural war-supporting base among Republicans, like Rep. Buck McKeon, hedging their bets by saying they don’t understand the point — quite a sensible question, based on administration statements.”
Other analysts insist that the unilateral authorization Obama insisted on obtaining doesn't allow the administration to publicly announce that regime change is the ultimate goal. But that’s precisely the problem with such multilateralism. It forces the president and his advisers to mislead the American people and potentially to limit our operations. In a democracy, it’s just not acceptable for the president to run one war for concealed aims and another for false, public consumption.
Why didn’t we just get Britain and France to go along and forget about the U.N. and the Arab League? The French have been rock-solid, and indeed have led the U.S. rhetorically. One think tank analyst generally sympathetic to the administration jests, “that was the ‘unilateralism’ they spent the last eight years denouncing.”
Indeed, but it is folly to go to war with the “authorization” of those whose motives and goals we don’t share. That is why, of course, the Constitution and the War Powers Act give Congress and not foreign powers a role in warmaking.