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

The administration might be confident about its rationale for intervening in Libya, but blowing off Congress is hurting, not helping, its case.

Obama’s core argument for NATO’s involvement assumes that America has a role to play as a superpower — and that we can’t expect British, French and Canadian troops to fight and die alongside Americans in Afghanistan if we aren’t willing to back them up on the Libya mission.

Working in Obama’s favor is the fact that even with our involvement in Libya already carrying an almost billion-dollar price tag, to date not a single American soldier, sailor, airman or Marine has been killed or wounded.

Working against Obama is this week’s news that an errant NATO strike killed 15 civilians in Tripoli — meaning that an operation geared toward staving off a civilian catastrophe wound up killing civilians anyway.

And perhaps uncomfortably, Obama’s Democratic allies, like Sen. Dick Durbin, are challenging the president on war powers, pointing out that “hostilities by remote control are still hostilities.”

Even more uncomfortably, Obama is backed — at least this time — by onetime rival Sen. John McCain and, in a roundabout way, by the late President Ronald Reagan, who explained his own Libyan airstrikes 25 years ago with this observation about Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi: “He counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong.”

If Obama made that case and asked for an up-or-down vote, he’d be inviting opposition from members of both parties in Congress. But he’d also focus the debate on what he believes are the stakes in Libya: that if the U.S. will act only in the face of a direct threat, it necessarily steps back from its role as a superpower.

Although that might wind up being what Congress, and Americans, want.

But if Obama proposed a vote, rather than having one forced on him, he’d force Congress to take some responsibility on Libya, and Congress would then have to go on record to agree or disagree with that premise. He’d be complying with the War Powers Act, and he’d turn the debate into a referendum.

Not on the war itself — but whether or not an all-talk Congress really has the will to shut it down.

David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.