Steve Chapman

It's a good thing we didn't elect John McCain in 2008. A McCain victory would have meant an escalation in Afghanistan, a third war in the Middle East and a president sending U.S. forces into harm's way heedless of public opinion or congressional power.

Instead, we elected Barack Obama, who firmly rejected military action for purely humanitarian reasons. In his 2002 speech opposing the Iraq war, Obama insisted that though Saddam Hussein "butchers his own people to secure his own power," the war was unjustified.

Hussein, he pointed out, "poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors" and "can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history."

In 2008, we saw debates between Obama and his rival contenders. Now we are seeing a debate between Obama the candidate and Obama the president.

Candidate Obama was firm in his opposition to the Iraq war. President Obama was against going into Libya before he was in favor of it. The former said the president may not legally strike a country that hasn't attacked or presented a threat to us. The latter bombed a country that had done neither.

Obama's defenders insist that what he did in starting the Libya war is not as bad as what President George W. Bush did in starting the Iraq war. True: In some ways, what Obama did is worse.

Bush made the case for removing Hussein over months. Bush got approval from Congress. Bush acted against a dictator who aspired to acquire nuclear weapons. He invaded a country of large strategic value. He stated plainly the purpose of the invasion.

Obama did none of those things. He rushed into a war, ignoring Congress, to punish a ruler who had abandoned his nuclear ambitions, in a country of peripheral importance.

And he did it without being clear on what would constitute success: just averting the slaughter of the rebels or also toppling Moammar Gadhafi from power. Obama says Gadhafi has to go. The United Nations resolution authorizing the attack says nothing of the sort.

Obama's war doesn't pose the heavy risk of a bloody, long-term occupation. Like Bush's, though, it rests on wishful thinking and ignorance.

The hope is that a no-fly zone will turn the military tide against Gadhafi or at least prevent the rebels from being wiped out. But they do not look capable of taking the fight to him, and a stalemate would require a long-term commitment at odds with Obama's plan to do this in "days, not weeks."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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