Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The slippage in Obama's "days, not weeks" promise

James Fallows, soberly upbraiding Obama for blowing off Congress in his prosecution of the isn't-war in Libya, repeats a quasi-misconception that in an odd way illustrates his point.  Arguing that Obama set himself up for Congressional rebuke by not seeking Congressional buy-in from the start, he writes:

This was a problem foreseeable from the very start* -- more than three months ago, when we were told that this would be a campaign of "days, not weeks."
Obama did not quite say that -- though there is some ambiguity in reports of what he did say on the two occasions when he used the phrase "days, not weeks."

First, on March 18, ABC's Jake Tapper relayed second hand what Obama reputedly said behind closed doors to Members of Congress.  The headline of the short item misrepresents the body content:

Obama to Members of Congress: Action in Libya to Last 'Days Not Weeks'

In his meeting with Members of Congress today, sources tell ABC News, President Obama said he expected that the period that the US would be involved in heavy kinetic activity would be "days, not weeks," after which he said the US would then take more of a supporting role.
Obama is pretty clearly reported to have said here  that it would be "days, not weeks" before the U.S. handed off leadership of the Libyan operation to Nato, not that the whole campaign would be over that quickly.  The ambiguity may have been compounded by the U.N. definition of the mission as a "humanitarian" one, focused on protecting civilians rather than unseating Gaddafi. 

A similar ambiguity obtains in Politico's live-blog of the Libyan part of Obama's press conference in Chile on March 21. I cannot find a full transcript of this event,  and the murkiness may partly be a product of elisions and paraphrasing.
ANSWER ME THESE QUESTIONS THREE: President Obama takes his last question, which is also about Libya, and the future of the country as a result of the attack there. On giving responsibility to allies, Obama says that "how quickly this transfer takes place will be determined by the recommendations of our commanding officers, that the mission has been completed – the first phase of the mission has been completed."

The "initial focus," Obama repeats, is taking out Libyan air defenses to set up a no-fly zone. Then the "humanitarian aspects" of the mission come into play.

He gives a time line: "We anticipate this transition to take place in a matter of days and not a matter of weeks, and so I would expect that over the next several days, we’ll have more information, and the Pentagon will be fully briefing the American people as well as the press on that issue."
Again, the "transition" in question is the transfer of responsibilities to allies and to the "humanitarian aspects" of the mission. At the same time, calling the next phase  a "humanitarian" mission is a recipe for confusion (confusing even Obama, who momentarily suggested, before correcting himself, that the mission might be over before the handoff took place).

The motive and even the net result of the ongoing post-handoff mission may be humanitarian, and the U.N. may have defined it as such, but the world sees a war, and the war is ongoing.  The problem, perhaps, is not in labeling the mission "humanitarian," but in denying that it's a war.  "Days not weeks" seems to have registered in people's minds as a promise of only days of war, and that is not what we have got.

In retrospect,  the peculiar structure  and framing of the mission from the start may indicate that the initial hedges -- we will hand this off, we will not aim to unseat Gaddafi by military means -- were designed to enable Obama to blow off Congress.  The administration hinted quite early that U.S. action in Libya would not (or might not) trigger the obligation to obtain Congressional approval mandated by the War Powers Resolution. While the U.N. resolution, the hand-off and the administration's early pronouncements may not have been crafted consciously to evade the War Powers Resolution, that evasion is certainly part and parcel with the minimalist and somewhat obfuscatory approach.

UPDATE 6/30/11: The "days, not weeks" confusion was reproduced in yesterday's press conference:  
        Q [Jim Sciutto.]   Thank you, Mr. President.  You’re aware that Senators Kerry and McCain have a proposal on the Senate floor to give you the leeway to continue operations in Libya for a further year.  You’ve just said that this, from the beginning, has been an operation limited in time and scope.  Initially you said days, not weeks.  Are you prepared, are the American people prepared for this operation, with American support, to continue for a further year?  And is there any other definition of success than Qaddafi being removed from power?
        THE PRESIDENT:  Well, first of all, Jim, just a slight correction.  What I told the American people was that the initial phase where Americans were in the lead would take days, perhaps weeks.  And that’s exactly what happened, right?  I mean, after -- around two weeks, a little less than two weeks, we had transitioned where NATO had taken full control of the operation.  So promise made, promise kept. 

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