Admittedly, President Obama is doing everything possible to make it hard to support his conduct of the Libya war. It’s not only that he is making a ludicrous, lawyerly argument this conflict doesn’t meet the definition of “hostilities” in the War Powers Act. It’s also that he is not conducting this war like a real war.
As the Financial Times noted last week, when the air campaign over Libya passed its 78th day, the tempo of operations is ridiculously restrained. At a similar point in the Kosovo War in 1999–itself a study in limited war-making–the NATO alliance had employed 1,100 aircraft and flown 38,004 sorties. In Libya, by contrast, NATO has sent only 250 aircraft and flown only 11,107 sorties. No wonder Qaddafi is still clinging to power and still able to massacre his poor people.
None of that should be an excuse, however, for congressional Republicans to lapse into blinkered isolationism and obstructionism. That would be the widely held–and accurate–perception were the House to vote this week to defund the Libyan war effort as a result of an unholy alliance between ultra-conservatives and ultra-liberals.
From a constitutional viewpoint, voting to cut off funds for a war is better than trying to enforce the War Powers Act which, as numerous presidents have argued since its passage over President Richard Nixon’s veto in 1973, is blatantly unconstitutional. But from a strategic and a political standpoint, it is short-sighted in the extreme to attempt to hobble the president’s ability to conduct this military campaign against a vicious dictator.
Strategically, the U.S. failure to do more in Libya is already hurting the NATO alliance on whose support we depend in Afghanistan and other hot spots. If the U.S. were to pull out now, it is hard to see how the alliance would survive, at least in its current form. The damage done to our relations with our closest allies could then be laid by Obama at Republicans’ feet.
Is that really smart politics? Do Republicans really want to be known as the anti-military, weak-on-defense, pro-dictator party? Those are the labels that will be hung around their necks by Democratic opponents if they continue with this effort. The Libya campaign may not be particularly popular at the moment; neither is Afghanistan; neither was Iraq. But voters applaud politicians who stick by principle. They are unlikely to reward opportunists who back military action only when ordered by presidents of their own party.
Moreover, the timing of the House effort couldn’t be worse. It comes just as there are numerous signs that Qaddafi’s regime is teetering and may be brought down before long. In fact, the current push recalls nothing as much as the actions of a previous Republican-dominated House which in late April 1999 voted to prevent President Clinton from sending ground troops to Kosovo and refused to endorse the NATO air campaign. Little more than a month later Serbian troops pulled out of Kosovo. The following year, the architect of the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign, Slobodan Milosevic, was toppled by his own people.
In retrospect, Republicans looked foolish and partisan for trying to throw Milosevic a rescue line when he was on the way out. Why repeat that mistake with Qaddafi?