I wrote recently of my decision to support the intervention in Libya, and the difficulty of that decision. I have rarely seen a question that has so divided people, and it’s happened on both the left and the right. I struggled with the question because there are good arguments both for and against the now-NATO-led military action there.
There’s one argument, though, that does not have much merit, though. That’s the issue of Obama’s not seeking Congressional authorization for this action. And the fact that it doesn’t have merit raises a whole set of new questions that all Americans, as well as the masses around the world affected by American foreign policy, need to consider most seriously.
Let’s start with the legal issue. Some members of Congress seem to either ignore or be ignorant of the US Constitution. Congress has the exclusive power to declare war, a provision meant to check the power of the President as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. But there was no war declared here on Libya. In no way can this action be called unconstitutional.
Even Obama got this wrong when, in a 2007 interview while he was still a Senator running for the big job, he said: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Though he does go on to say, correctly, that, “History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.” The problem, as I’ll address below, is that this Congress has made that option considerably less than preferable.
But is Obama’s action legal? After successive presidents got the US caught up in Asian quagmires in Korea and, most especially Vietnam (including, of course, the fabrication deceiving Congress about US forces being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, though the US had already been involved in Vietnam by that time for years), the Congress, in 1973, enacted the War Powers Resolution. The purpose of this law was to ensure that the president could no longer drag the US into a prolonged conflict without congressional permission.
Successive presidents have grappled with Congress over the War Powers Resolution and just how the control of American military forces are now divided. It has been at issue for President Clinton in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Haiti, and came up regarding George W. Bush’s military excursions beyond the congressionally-authorized battle zones of Afghanistan and Iraq (these were authorizations for the use of force, not declarations of war). It’s always a difficult argument.
But in this case, the US was intervening for a short time, entered into the fray with a clear and quick timeline to hand off the leadership of activities to NATO and with a limited, UN-sponsored mandate. President Obama complied with the War Powers Resolution and informed the Congressional leadership of the US’ upcoming involvement.
There are two issues at play here. One is the natural tension between the legislative and executive branches of the US government. That tension is natural and healthy, if at times unpleasant and frustrating. And I daresay it accounts for most or all of the complaining about this that some democrats have done.
The second issue is much more worrisome, and that is the same one that has been in play ever since Obama’s election, and is much more of a concern now that the House of Representatives is in Republican hands: the Republican determination to oppose anything Obama does, simply because Obama wants it.
One reason it may be argued that the President is granted the power to direct American armed forces is so that he can act quickly and not get embroiled in political in-fighting. To be sure, that is precisely why the power needs a check, and history certainly provides the reasons for why presidents cannot be allowed to simply do as they please with no congressional input.
But this Congress adds a different aspect to the perennial tug of war over foreign policy between Congress and the executive. A Congress where one party wishes to obstruct the president for no other reason than to obstruct him and which holds one of the two houses in its control cannot be allowed to thwart a decision like this one in Libya, where so many civilian lives hang in the balance.
Of course, I don’t believe that American motives are so pure as to simply wish to protect the lives of innocents. It is obvious there are other concerns here (though oil is not one of them—Libyan oil was already secure). They include the wish to rid the world of the unpredictable headache that is the unbalanced Muammar Qaddafi, the concern about backlash if Libyan and Arab League calls for help went unheeded and a major massacre did occur, and a desire to create a positive atmosphere for new Arab governments that are clearly on the way in towards the West, something that was almost entirely missing after the Bush years.
But that doesn’t change the reality that Congress would surely have dragged its feet on this if Obama had sought their stamp of approval for this escapade. That foot-dragging would have gone on, quite intentionally, long enough to moot any effort by Obama to accomplish the goals set out above. And it would have been done for no other reason than to prevent Obama from gaining political points in Libya.
Such a concern is frankly unprecedented. Of course, both parties work to try to secure the White House for their own in any upcoming election. But never, not even in the 1994 Congress and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract ON America” (misnomer intentional) has one party so blatantly set out to thwart anything and everything a president has tried to do as this one.
This is no longer a matter of ideology for America. Even if you support Republican goals, you should be appalled at their methods. The Democrats, who have always been far less united than their conservative counterparts, really can’t retaliate in kind. But this is the situation Obama faces, and it should be intolerable to any American who cares about…well, just about anything.
There were reasons, and good ones, that one might oppose the intervention in Libya. But Obama acted both within his rights under the War Powers Resolution and sensibly given the politics in Washington. This question is not one of those good reasons.
As a postscript, I think it’s worth reading this short excerpt from Obama’s speech on Libya yesterday. I never buy any politician’s sincerity, but these are words it’s worth our while to listen to because they are good words and, more importantly they’re words worth holding Obama to very hard:
I know that some Americans continue to have questions about our efforts in Libya. Qaddafi has not yet stepped down from power, and until he does, Libya will remain dangerous. Moreover, even after Qaddafi does leave power, 40 years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions. The transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task. And while the United States will do our part to help, it will be a task for the international community and –- more importantly –- a task for the Libyan people themselves.
In fact, much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya. On the one hand, some question why America should intervene at all -– even in limited ways –- in this distant land. They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing needs here at home.
It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country -– Libya – at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.
To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.
Moreover, America has an important strategic interest in preventing Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful –- yet fragile -– transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security. So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.