There is an old political dictum: If the economy is bad, the economy is the issue. If it is not bad, something else is the issue.
With unemployment unlikely to fall below 8 percent in 2012, the economy certainly will be the prime issue in 2012 elections.(In fact, no incumbent president except Franklin Roosevelt has ever been re-elected when unemployment was as high as 7.2 percent in an election year).
The "something else" that now looms as an issue — no matter the state of the economy — is national security and, most specifically, voters' feelings about U.S. interventions where American troops and money are involved.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike have objected because our involvement in Libya has run well past the time when the White House should, by law, have asked Congress to grant further authority for the Libyan intervention under the War Powers Act. Libya, at this moment, involves less money and troops than those committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trouble is, the Libyan venture was undertaken under what essentially were false pretexts and in a country in which no vital U.S. interests are at stake.
Democratic Rep. Barney Frank put it well last week in a House floor speech in which he said that many bad leaders were in charge in many countries (like Qadaffi in Libya) but that "the United States should not be the 911 number to call" if and when someone wanted such leaders deposed. The U.S. intervention, joined notably by France and Great Britain, was originally jusitified as a "humanitarian" operation intended to protect rebels being bombed by government forces in western Libyan cities.
President Obama then said that "Qadaffi must go." But Qadaffi has not gone. We have found, in the meantime, that the anti-government rebels are a mixed bag of groups and people, which include al-Qaida allies as well as those who want democratic governance. If Qadaffi were to step down tomorrow, there would be no reliable successor regime to install, although on-ground U.S. advisors are trying to patch one together.
The French and British, from the beginning, have had a more traditional European interest in Libya's oil than in the establishment of democracy and justice in the country. Italy has an interest because Libya is its former colony. None want Libyan refugees streaming nto their countries.
So the U.S. not only has launched bombing raids in Libya but, now, has utilized attack helicopters to combat Libyan government ground forces. And, on the ground, the effort continues to put together an acceptable alternative regime. The price tag will hit $2 billion soon.
To my mind, this all represents well-intended if self-righteous Wilsonianism run amok. The uprising in Tunisia is likely to have a positive ending. The Egyptian story is yet to be told. Mubarak is gone but the Muslim Brotherhood now represents the single strongest organized political force in the country. The odds are slightly tipped in favor of an eventual happy outcome there. But that might not happen.
Syria's leaders appear sufficiently ruthless that they will likely be able to repress and kill their way to continued power in the country. The situation is similar in Iran. Demonstrators have driven Yemen's leader into exile; but there, too, al-Qaida has a strong base and could conceivably engineer a takeover — unless U.S. and allied troops ride to the rescue.
Pentagon officials are cynically calling the U.S. intervention in Libya "the estrogen war," mocking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who won a power struggle with Defense Secretary Bob Gates to gain Obama's approval for the operation. Gates, before the fact, had said that "anyone should have his head examined" who wanted a U.S. military involvement in Libya.
All of this is background to the War Powers Act discussion now taking place in the capital. Presidents historically have looked for devices to keep Congress out of war-and-peace decisions thought marginal. In the post-Vietnam period, the War Powers Act was enacted in order to keep limited commitments from growing into large ones and, for that matter, to force congressional review of even the limited ones at their outset.
Washington U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, the senior House Democrat on armed services issus, spoke out publicly last week to question the Libyan venture. Behind the scenes, he had attempted without success to arrange a meeting of his senior colleagues with Obama to discuss the issue.
Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, the senior minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke out similarly Monday. He is probably the single most respected Senator, in either party, on foreign-policy issues.
Obama either will heed these calls, and seek congressional approval for the Libyan intervention under the War Powers Act, or risk enraging congressional leaders of both parties.
At this point the administration appears to face two choices: The first is to take the issue to the Congress for approval. The second is to rapidly and massively escalate the military operation in Libya so as to bring down Qadaffi immediately and, then, to present that fait accompli to the American people and Congress.
Libya has been overshadowed by domestic economic problems and the bigger U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it will come to the forefront within days if it triggers a constitutional crisis.