In the Illinois legislature, state Sen. Barack Obama voted "present" 129 times. Today, he seems to be voting present on two major issues, Libya and the budget.
National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told reporters Thursday that the United States and other nations have "taken a range of steps ... to squeeze (Moammar) Gadhafi, isolate him, really turn him into a pariah."
But the steps the United States has taken may well have bolstered Gadhafi's determination to crush the rebellion against his regime.
On the one hand, we supported the United Nations resolution giving the International Criminal Court jurisdiction to prosecute Gadhafi and his minions. That means we have blocked off any escape route to a safe retirement.
On the other hand, we have interpreted the Security Council resolution ordering an arms embargo as applying to the Libyan rebels as well as the Gadhafi regime.
Or at least that's the interpretation of State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. An anonymous White House source said maybe the resolution doesn't apply to the rebels.
The White House has said the U.S. will send aid to the rebels and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with their transitional council next week.
Aid, not arms -- a meeting, but (unlike France and Portugal) no official recognition. The president seems to be voting "present" once again.
It is understandable perhaps that he has not chosen to impose a no-fly zone, as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry has urged -- military intervention is an enterprise with serious risks.
But the hesitancy to recognize the rebels as an alternative to a regime the president has said "must go," as urged by former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, is harder to fathom.
Meanwhile, the news is that Gadhafi's forces have captured cities both in eastern and western Libya that were held by the rebels. Military outcomes are hard to predict, but the time when we might have helped turn the tide against Gadhafi may have passed or be rapidly passing. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate committee he thought Gadhafi would survive.
Obama seems to be voting "present" on the budget, as well. His proposed budget for 2012 failed to address the looming problem of entitlements identified as critical by his own bipartisan economic commission.
He designated Vice President Joe Biden as his chief negotiator with congressional leaders on budget issues, at which point Biden embarked on a presumably previously scheduled seven-day trip overseas. Plenty of practical politicians would regard that as an insult meriting a two-word response with a tough letter to follow.
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