The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.
— Senator Barack Obama, 2007
The United States is now engaged in a third war, in the country of Libya. What has been hastily sold to the American public as only enforcement of a no-fly zone in fact incorporates a pounding of Libyan ground forces in support of rebel forces. As described in a previous post on Missile Test, targets within Libya have also included command and control facilities in Tripoli and elsewhere, along with an attempt to kill Muammer el-Qaddafi by destroying his compound. This is regime change, but the public statements from the White House regarding the mission have done nothing to this point but foster confusion about our aims, goals, and who is actually leading this multinational effort.
The Pentagon has said the American phase of leadership will be ending soon, but on the day attacks were begun, the public was told we were not leading the war. That story disintegrated when it became clear that American forces were carrying out the vast majority of air attacks within Libya. The Pentagon has also said the attacks are close to fulfilling their initial goals — that is, establishing the no-fly zone. But this does not mean American participation in the war will end. The Qaddafi regime will still be in place after we have gained air supremacy. The rebels will still be battling the state. So the following phase will be continued air support of the rebels. That is something the President has not prepared the country for, whether it is carried out under our own leadership or under Europe’s.
But beyond the ill-defined war, serious problems present themselves. Among them, the United States may be acting within a multilateral coalition with much support from other governments, but here at home, President Obama has committed American forces unilaterally, without the consent of Congress, the only branch of government with the Constitutional authority to declare war.
The quote at the top of this post was part of a response then-Senator Obama gave when he was asked about the authority of the president to bomb Iran without consent from Congress. Senator Obama did not see Iran, a country currently developing nuclear weapons and the means to deploy them, as an imminent threat worthy of presidential discretion. President Obama, on the other hand, seems to have no issue with ignoring his own standard of action when it comes to Libya, a country that is hardly at the top of America’s threat list.
American presidents have always done 180-degree turns when it comes to their views on presidential power once they assume office. The view from the Oval Office is quite different. But that is no excuse. The fact is, Libya poses no imminent threat to the United States, yet President Obama has authorized military action without the consent of Congress. The United States and its allies sought authorization from the United Nations, and got it, but that does not absolve the Obama administration from its Constitutional obligations.
Part of the blame rests with Congress, whose members have abrogated their war powers in the decades since World War II. They were the enablers that allowed presidential power to reach the point where military action can be carried out by presidential fiat. But that is no excuse, either. At the very least, the rule of law demands that continued operations in Libya come up for a vote in Congress.
How such a vote would turn out, however, doesn’t change the fact that this new Libya operation is just a bad idea. President Obama framed the justification for the war as a cause to prevent an oppressive and brutal regime from slaughtering its citizens, a noble and laudable goal. But the reality on the ground shows we are supporting a rebel group looking to depose Qaddafi and establish a new regime, one the United States cannot define and whose future behavior it cannot predict. We don’t know if the new regime will be friendly to the United States, nor do we know if it will be a representative democracy. We also do not know what kind of chaos would follow the collapse of the Qaddafi government. What we do know is that Libya is a tribal society, and our experience with the tribal society of Afghanistan should be enough to point to the troubles ahead.
What is also disturbing is it looks like we were pressured into this action by our allies in Europe. They have more at stake in this fight, regarding Libya’s oil reserves, than we do. France and Great Britain were chomping at the bit for weeks before attacks were launched, while the quiet debate was conducted in Washington. That being the case, operational and logistical control, and also primary action, should be turned over to them as quickly as possible.
From a moral standpoint, it is also dubious that the operation is justifiable. We like to think of ourselves as moral warriors, fighting for the good of the oppressed of the world. Applying arguments against the operation, such as citing its financial costs, seems cold-hearted and repulsive to many Americans. How can a cost be placed on a human life, after all? In a perfect world, there would be no cost. But American power and American treasure have limits, and we have to make decisions based on that. Those decisions are made frequently, in fact, which is why countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Sudan, among many others, continue to be horrific places to live. Where is our moral imperative when it comes to these places?
Liberal values hold that it is a moral thing to help those that can’t help themselves. In this case, the argument from the administration is that the people of Libya fit this description. But, liberal values also hold that the first responsibility a person has is to themselves. Ensuring a happy life at home is more important than sacrificing that life to help others. On the world stage, this means that engaging in military adventures to the detriment of the United States, even in the service of preventing oppression abroad, is not a moral act. It is immoral. The unknowns surrounding the outcome of the operation in Libya mean we cannot predict what damage, if any, the United States is doing to itself. That is also immoral. We don’t know if we’re being any help to anyone outside of a rebel group with unknown intentions beyond regime change. We won’t know if this operation was worth the cost for years. This war is not just morally dubious. It is, without a doubt, unjustifiable.