Depending on how you ask the question, public support for the U.S. role in the bombing campaign in Libya is either unusually tepid or extremely robust. Gallup pegs it at just 47 percent — well below the levels the pollster measured in the opening weeks of the 2003 Iraq (72 percent) and 2001 Afghanistan (82 percent) wars.
At the same time Gallup’s Libya bombing survey was taken, pollsters for CBS News registered a 68 percent approval rating. The likely cause of the discrepancy is that CBS included the same misleading description that President Barack Obama offered at the campaign’s outset.
The Obama description suggested the real goal was “to protect civilians from attacks by [Moammar] Gadhafi forces.” Those words notwithstanding, our targets in Libya — and other comments by Obama — suggest the real goal is getting rid of Gadhafi, aka “regime change.”
The discrepancy in measures of public support illustrates how politicians sell wars. Remember the famous “16 words” about alleged weapons of mass destruction that President George W. Bush used to win support for the Iraq War?
Americans were told Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons and was thus a direct threat to this nation and our allies. Bush sold the war with the most publicly palatable rationale, disregarding the issue of the reliability of the intelligence involved.
Ultimately, the WMD rationale was gradually de-emphasized and eventually abandoned.
This bait-and-switch process is moving far more quickly in Libya. Obama, having bypassed Congress while justifying his new war on humanitarian grounds, is now saying that “Gadhafi needs to go.” But he based the authority for his mission on a United Nations resolution that only authorizes force in order “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.”
So far, our mission in Libya is doing little to prevent atrocities against civilians, according to mainstream news outlets with reporters on the ground. And if our real goal is to topple Gadhafi, it will almost certainly require a much larger military commitment.
Obama has managed to involve us in a conflict with contradictory goals because he has bypassed Congress, the constitutional “decider” when it comes to declaring war. Instead of hiding behind the fiction that we are not really involved in a third war, Obama should rectify this situation immediately by submitting his plans and his goals to Congress. Are we trying to spare civilian lives or are we trying to topple Gadhafi?
Nothing will bring greater clarity to this and other questions about our involvement than the participation of our elected leaders. Lawmakers in Congress should be demanding as much, unless they want to continue our unfortunate precedent of unilateral wars declared by our increasingly imperial presidents.