Obama’s Bizarre Illegal War in Libya

At the inception of the lethal not-war (and now, not even “hostility”) in Libya, I questioned the wisdom of military action with squishy aims. Squishy has gotten squishier — and politically muddled.

The Obama administration justifies the Executive Branch military action in Libya — that is, use of lethal American military force without congressional authorization, contrary to the War Powers Resolution — by saying that the bombing is not “hostility,” and therefore doesn’t trigger the requirement of congressional authorization. Some administration lawyers disagree.

Air strikes, cruise missile bombardments, and drone operations at a cost of $10 million a day, the dissenters suggest, amounts to a “hostility.” And their view, in my view, enjoys the incidental virtue of common sense.

The surreality of our Libyan not-war got even stranger on Thursday, when the House of Representatives voted convincingly — 123-295 — against authorizing the limited use of the United States Armed Forces in support of the NATO mission in Libya. Republicans voted overwhelmingly against authorization, while all but eight of the 123 supporters were Democrats.

What’s going on? Republicans now favor limitations on the Executive Branch’s war-making powers, while Democrats (the authors of the War Powers Resolution over President Nixon’s veto) support the most expansive interpretation of Executive Branch war-making powers since the Vietnam War (which mostly predated the War Powers Resolution)?

Has an illegal war become part of the president’s triangulation strategy (“I’m not so liberal America. I kill terrorists and enemies of America with the best of them.”)?

Purple Nation columnist Lanny Davis thinks the president should have simply sought congressional authorization.

What is unusual here is that President Obama chose to accept a linguistic legal analysis rather than a political one to thread the needle on this issue. Surely he must know that his definition of “hostilities,” excluding the U.S. shooting missiles from Predator drones or air strikes aimed at suppressing enemy air defense, is a stretch at best.

The question is, why go there? Why not, instead, go to Congress and seek authorization?

He wrote a day before the stinging rebuke of the House vote. Obviously the administration didn’t have the votes. And so it chose to preserve the War Powers Resolution for use against some future Republican president, while engaging in tortured linguistics to argue that it could bomb with impunity without engaging in “hostilities.”

The Dividist blogger puts it succinctly: “We now have a President who is asserting that it is completely within his authority to commit our military resources to strikes against another country, and never be required to request the authority of Congress. This is claim of executive war power far beyond anything that was ever asserted in the Bush/Cheney administration.”

Here is what candidate Obama said in opposing the Iraq war his administration ended up supporting:

A war to disarm a dictator has become an open-ended occupation of a foreign country. This is not America. This is not who we are. It’s time for us to stand up and tell George Bush that the government in this country is not based on the whims of one person, the government is of the people, by the people and for the people.

We thought we learned this lesson. After Vietnam, Congress swore it would never again be duped into war, and even wrote a new law — the War Powers Act — to ensure it would not repeat its mistakes.

What a robust, and massively hypocritical, defense of the War Powers Act — that same act that President Obama now flaunts.

And so we come full circle to squishy aims. We’ve come to this bizarreness because of squishy aims. This administration wished most profoundly both to appear unaggressive and aggressive. This administration wished to project American power and not to appear to be projecting American power. This administration wished, essentially, to hoodwink Americans and the world, with an eye to 2012, and preserve the ability to claim both its muscularity and its good-natured passivity, whichever it needed most politically.

The problem is, as is typically the problem with squishy aims, human beings are dying and American credibility suffers. “Obama’s attack has been too feeble to bring down Gaddafi, but big enough to discredit us for trying and failing; too wrapped up in U.N. legalities, but too little concern over national interests.”

I agree with Lanny. The president should have sought congressional authorization — but for very specific and defined aims — like the elimination of Gaddafi. That might have passed. And that might have preserved the War Powers Resolution without yet another assault on common sense of the sort that makes so many Americans cynical about how our government works.

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5 Responses to Obama’s Bizarre Illegal War in Libya

  1. Jeff Veazey says:

    Wholeheartedly agree with the analysis, strongly disagree with the partisan conclusions about motivations and conscious political positioning affecting policy. Criticism of this war and of the administration’s stubborn resistance to compliance with the War Powers Act is wholly justifiable. Beyond that, is practicing psychiatry without a license. Phrases link “flaunts”, “hoodwink” and “far beyond anything ever asserted by the Bush / Cheney administration” (lol), once again (yawn) impugn the character of the President over the terra firma notion that he is, like Progressive Presidents before him, surrounded by hawks, conflicted by what his principles would be if he were not President and trying to keep America positioned as the brand name for freedom. This notion has led us many times into the moral and political quagmire. I strongly disagree with our President on this war. He has it wrong as to what we owe Europe, NATO, the Libyans, or to “freedom” and he has it wrong as to War Powers Act compliance. I do not need a sinister underlying motivation for his course in Libya. Digressing into talk radio rationale for his reasons provide no additional information to helping understand the primary fact. Let me repeat it, My President is stubbornly wrong on the War Powers Act and Libya. He needs to comply with the act and accept the outcome immediately.

    • Jeff, I’m not sure we disagree. But neither am I sure we agree. What you call “talk radio rationale” for the president’s reasons is actually plausible. I quoted a liberal Democrat, Lanny Davis, questioning the president’s rationale, and suggesting that it would have been easier and more defensible taking a very different approach. The president chose otherwise, and it certainly doesn’t seem a stretch to say he’s thinking about 2012. Why is that strange? Why is that “practicing psychiatry without a license”? Why is a consummate Chicago-schooled politician like Barack Obama always immune, in your book, from political motivation, even nefarious political motivation? I think you give the president too little credit for being the quite remarkable politician he is.

      We agree on the War Powers Act, but I’m not sure what you mean by “he has it wrong as to what we owe Europe, NATO, the Libyans, or to ‘freedom’.” What do you mean?

      • Jeff Veazey says:

        As usual, I’ll present the broad panorama, which means the close up shots might be a little fuzzy. I’ll try to explain. Here is this guy, who I really like on a lot of levels. But, he is closer to Bush, Johnson and Reagan, a Hawk, a Noble Peace Prize Winner, who articulated the “just war” doctrine. Why do I like this guy on so many levels? This is a purely personal reaction, but as I read the guy, if political motivation, even nefarious political motivation, is a guidepost, he is working backwards. The people he would normally be trying to please, with so many just wars, already hate him, will always hate and hate him for not being the liberal they thought he was. While those of us who thought we were seeing the best of a lot of Progressive leaders, feel that we are insignificant and unappreciated after our investment. I can’t recall a leader who has made so many decisions contra to the core values of a majority of his base (Libya, compromise on health care, not close Gitmo…) and yet the base remains intact, not blindly, but patiently and uncomfortably loyal. If 2012 is on his mind he has a strange way of showing it to those of us who voted for him.

  2. lobotero says:

    Is there not some law that forbids the US from engaging in assassination? An to say that we are going to kill Qaddhafi would be assassination……I am NOT disagreeing with your analysis and yes….Obama needed to come to Congress before committing our military….maybe there was not a good logical excuse to fight…….I mean humanitarian is pretty lame considering all the other little battles going on in the ME……

  3. Paul Grubbs says:

    The beat goes on and on and on. The beatings will continue until morale improves. No doubt America suffers some bipolar politics. I am thankful that Obama got UBL. With the swing in the popularity polls shortly after UBL swam with fishes; I fear BO is waiting until near the elections to assassinate Kaddafi. Good for a few votes, no doubt. He is going to need them. Hawks and doves dont like him and those of us in the middle are not enough to assure re-election. That means this campaign will be a “no holds barred” run for office. Eye gouging and name calling will not be enough to distract the electorate from the shape we’re in.

    “Just because you are paranoid; don’t think they aren’t out to get you.” ~ Lenny Bruce

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