Obama’s Wrong About Congress and Libya

The president's end run on the War Powers Act is a missed opportunity to define his foreign policy and put congressional rivals on the spot.

Getty Images
Getty Images

To put the hypocrisy of Republicans into context when it comes to Libya, it’s worth pointing out that two of the congressmen joining Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s suit to stop President Barack Obama’s prosecution of the ongoing NATO action in Libya’s civil war — North Carolina Reps. Walter Jones and Howard Coble — both backed the 2002 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

At the time, you’ll recall, Jones even frivolously coined the term “freedom fries” to embarrass the French for their refusal — now clearly prudent — to participate in America’s Iraq expedition.

That a once-interventionist GOP caucus has become divided on the proper role of the military is encouraging in the long run — echoing the national mood that the cost in blood and treasure of three Middle East wars is unsustainable. But it also represents the abandonment of a president who — had he chosen two years ago to rapidly withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan — would have been attacked by those same Republicans as a “dithering” commander in chief who’d “cut and run” instead of defending America from the threat of terror.

But the congressional flip-flop still isn’t a good-enough excuse for Obama to disregard the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which says that “within sixty calendar days” of entering a military engagement, Congress gets a chance to weigh in.

So far, on Libya, the president has been ducking the legislative body.

On June 14, House Speaker John Boehner warned that Obama risked violating the law unless he “asks for and receives authorization from Congress or withdraws all U.S. troops and resources from the mission.” But rather than submit further Libya action to a vote, the White House overruled Pentagon lawyers with squishy legalese, saying that the “operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops,” and therefore — they say — the ongoing Libya campaign technically isn’t a war.

Too bad, because the issue, as the Atlantic’s James Fallows writes, isn’t just a theoretical debate over the definition of “war” or the president’s Article II powers. It’s about us once again “going to war essentially on one person’s say-so.” Whether or not you support U.S. involvement in Libya, it’s pretty tough to say that Congress — and its Article I powers — should just be ignored.

Even if it was more imperative to get U.N. and Arab League backing at the outset, how can it still be a good idea to shrug off Congress now? It’s another example — like Guantánamo Bay and the “ground zero mosque” — of the administration’s poor instincts when it comes to sorting out which congressional fights it should take on and which ones it should leave alone.