The White House notified Congress today that it would not be asking lawmakers to formally authorize American participation in the Libyan intervention. President Obama’s reasoning is that the fighting in Libya does not amount to full blown “hostilities” and, as such, means that the legislative requirement that imposes a 60-day deadline on unauthorized use of U.S. military force does not apply. Regardless of where one stands on the question of our involvement in Libya, this is a problematic decision.
There are two reasons that might lead some conservatives, even those who loathe Obama, to back the president.
First, despite the criticism of the Libyan intervention by some on the right who seem to be drifting toward an isolationist or “realist” view of the use of American power, the decision to intervene in Libya was correct. Though President Obama dithered far too long over whether to act to try to stop Muammar Qaddafi from massacring dissidents seeking to overthrow his despotic rule, his belated move to enter the fray alongside our European allies was the right thing to do. Letting Qaddafi survive the Arab Spring protests would be a huge mistake that might allow him to rejoin the ranks of state terror sponsors.
Second, the original War Powers Act was itself a Congressional encroachment on the ability of the executive branch to defend American security and interests. Though it is defended as a way for Congress to take back its responsibility for declaring war in an age of undeclared conflicts, it is a vestige of the Vietnam era whose passage was motivated primarily by a desire to inhibit the use of American power under all circumstances. Chief executives of both parties have always chafed against this measure.
That said the White House’s interpretation of the law seems both mistaken and politically ill advised.
The notion that Libya is the equivalent of some peacekeeping operation in which fighting is both infrequent and not the point of the mission is absurd. Even though Obama has disgracefully chosen to “lead from behind” in Libya, it is obviously a shooting war. As House Speaker John Boehner has said, Obama must either invoke the act or say, as other presidents have, that it is unconstitutional. For the administration’s legal advisors to proclaim that the Act is constitutional but that Libya somehow doesn’t come under its purview is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the law.
But the problem here is not so much a constitutional one as it is a matter of political courage. Were Obama to notify Congress that the Act applied to Libya, he would be forced to come forward with a coherent rationale for his original decision to intervene as well as make the case for why that effort must continue. A compelling case can certainly be made to that effect but Obama hasn’t the intestinal fortitude to defend his decision before Congress. Indeed, his intent here is to avoid a debate about Libya altogether.
Though those who wrongly wish to end U.S. involvement in Libya have promoted the invocation of the War Powers Act it must be admitted that they have the law on their side here. The president and others who support this mission have an obligation to speak up for it. Were the president to do so it would allow the conflict to continue with the backing of both Congress and the country in such a way as to strengthen our position. That Obama has failed to seize this chance speaks volumes about both his lack of conviction in the rightness of America’s cause as well as his own spinelessness.