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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