Eugene Robinson had the best column I’ve seen about the President’s game-playing with war powers on Libya.
Blasting dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s troops and installations from above with unmanned drone aircraft may or may not be the right thing to do, but it’s clearly a hostile act. Likewise, providing intelligence, surveillance and logistical support that enable allied planes to attack Gaddafi’s military — and, increasingly, to target Gaddafi himself — can only be considered hostile. These are acts of war.
Yet Obama, with uncommon disregard for both language and logic, takes the position that what we are doing in Libya does not reach the “hostilities” threshold for triggering the War Powers Act, under which presidents must seek congressional approval for any military campaign lasting more than 90 days. House Speaker John Boehner said Obama’s claim doesn’t meet the “straight-face test,” and he’s right.
To be sure, Boehner is also playing politics. In the past, he has argued that the War Powers Act is “constitutionally suspect” because it seeks to tie the hands of the commander in chief. I don’t believe it’s accidental that Boehner’s newfound respect for the much-disputed law coincides with the Republican Party’s electoral stance, which is that every single thing Obama has ever done is wrong.
But the law remains in force and, while presidents of both parties routinely find ways around it, they usually find a more credible dodge than asking, “War? What war?”
The fact that the Pentagon is handing out “imminent danger” pay to troops working in Libya suggests that “hostilities” are indeed taking place.
People who I talk to about the Libya situation always want to get concrete, asking whether we should help a people remove a murderous dictator or not. First of all, if we do want to help, there are better ways to do that than blast away at Gadhafi’s compound rather than actually take on the task of protecting civilians. Libyan tanks were able to roll through the desert to Misurata and lay siege to the city, the very outcome that NATO was empowered by the UN to prevent, while airstrikes rained down in Tripoli. These are bad tactics, and Libya war supporter Juan Cole is right to point them out. In fact, all of Cole’s points about tactics in the war are sound.
Cole is also right that the Administration should have sought Congressional authorization. And that’s the point I always come back to. Whether or not you agree with the Libyan mission, the point is to prevent the next President from aggrandizing executive warmaking power through subverting the Constitution. If any mission where American lives aren’t threatened doesn’t count as “hostilities,” it brings us into an era of unaccountable drone wars. This is a terrible outcome with dangerous consequences, and should be stopped.
But it can only be stopped by Congress. And here we have competing yet somewhat complementary actions. First, freshman House member Joe Heck (R-NV) introduced a bill to end all funding for the Libya operation within 30 days. Heck believes that the President is in violation of the War Powers Resolution and must be stopped. At the same time, John McCain and John Kerry will introduce a bill in the Senate that would provide Congressional authorization for the war for one year, with a ban on ground troops. Harry Reid appears to support the idea. McCain pleaded with his colleagues in the House GOP today, in remarks on the Senate floor, not to meddle with the President’s warmaking powers at a time when Gadhafi is close to being overthrown.
These look like conflicting resolutions, but they’re not. Both of them say that war authorization must emanate from the Congress and not the executive. One resolution approves of the war and one doesn’t. But the principle is that Congress is in control where war powers are concerned. The Congressional leadership was ready to drop this, but they were pressured from the bottom up to assert themselves. That’s generally a positive development.