Nobody seems to have noticed, but in the nearly two and a half years of the Obama administration at least three commonplace phrases of the George W. Bush era have slipped into oblivion: “regime change,” “shock and awe,” and “imperial presidency.” The war in Libya should remind us of just how appropriate they remain.
By now, it’s obvious that, despite much talk about a limited mission to protect Libyan civilians, Obama and his NATO allies are as clearly on a course of “regime change” in Libya as Bush was in Iraq. If you loved it then (and you haven’t learned a thing since), you should love it now. If you were disturbed by it then, you should still be disturbed by it.
No question, Saddam Hussein was one nasty guy, as is Muammar Gaddafi, and the Bush administration was certainly blunter about what it was trying to do to Saddam. The initial air assault aimed at him and other regime heavyweights (which killed dozens of Iraqi civilians, but not a single significant or even insignificant figure) was repeatedly described as a “decapitation attack.” This time around, the attacks on Gaddafi’s “compound” and other locations the Libyan leader is suspected of using have been accompanied by denials that assassination was intended or his removal the point. But reality is reality, and attempted regime change is attempted regime change, whatever officials care to call it.
When the U.S. and NATO struck with their might against Gaddafi, using jets, drones, and later Apache helicopters, they were visibly engaging in a modified version of the “shock and awe” campaign that launched the invasion of Iraq: massive air power meant to crack a regime open, leave it stunned and potentially leaderless, and take it down. As air power, for all its destructiveness, has disappointed in the past, so it has done here. All the Obama administration’s problems with Congress and with the War Powers Resolution come from a belief -- similar to the Bush administration’s -- that, given our awesome might, this would end quickly. It hasn’t.
Faced with the need to endlessly claim “progress” (amid endless frustration) in a war that has once again inspired something less than awe and submission, the Obama administration has, like previous administrations, resorted to the powers of the imperial presidency, which only grow fiercer with time. It seems that even a former constitutional law professor, on entering the White House, can’t resist enhancing the powers of the executive office. And if that’s not imperial, what is? (Ironically, if the Obama administration had gone to Congress for support weeks ago, as the War Powers Act calls for, it would undoubtedly have gotten that support.) In the meantime, in its attempt to explain away the powers invested in Congress, it has launched a war on the words that are still around, as Jonathan Schell wrote recently in his “Attacking Libya – and the Dictionary.”