John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.
President Obama finally got around to speaking to the American people about the fact that he has led the country into a third war.
The speech was, to no one's surprise, ably delivered. The president spoke with emotional and rhetorical power of how he felt there had been a need to intervene in order to prevent "a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world." He explained how there are times "when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are." He decried the temptation "to turn away from the world" and promised that "wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States."
Those are noble sentiments, well expressed.
Unfortunately, he also spoke about how he had initiated the way on his own: "I ordered warships into the Mediterranean." I refused to let that happen." "I authorized military action ..." "At my direction ..."
The problem is that presidents are not supposed to start wars, especially wars of whim that are offensive rather than defensive in nature. That was the complaint against George W. Bush when he failed to obtain a declaration of war before ordering the invasion of Iraq; that is the ongoing complaint against Obama for maintaining the undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is the legitimate and necessary complaint against Obama now, a complaint that should come not just from opponents of the military intervention but supporters who want that intervention to be lawful and legitimate.
The president did not address the fact that the Libyan adventure is an undeclared war. In fact, he barely mentioned the Congress that is supposed to declare wars, saying only: "And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973."
But the Constitution does not discuss "consulting the bipartisan leadership..." It says that: "Congress shall have the power... to declare war, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water."
That was the point that Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) made with regard to the speech.
Suggesting that "President Obama owes the nation an explanation as to why he had time to consult with 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, 22 members of the Arab League, and later, with 28 members of NATO, to garner support for an attack with Great Britain and France, but had no time to come to the United States Congress for prior authorization before attacking Libya," Kucinich argued that: "Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution is very clear. It is Congress that determines when our nation goes to war. President Obama superseded that authority and bought a new war for the American people without Congressional approval. We must know what it will cost, how long it will last, what is the end game, and when will NATO — whose military bills we pay — get out."
Kucinich continued: "President Obama's failure to come to Congress, as required by the Constitution, left us without the opportunity to have a full and ample debate on the merits of military intervention in Libya. As such, I intend to offer a bipartisan amendment to cut off funds for U.S. participation in the war to the next funding measure. I want to thank Representatives Ron Paul (R-TX), Walter Jones (R-NC), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Pete Stark (D-CA) and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) for their co-sponsorship of the amendment."
Kucinich has been a steady and outspoken critic of the president's failure to seek a declaration of war.
But, after Obama spoke, other members of Congress voiced their objections.
Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, (D-WI), issued a statement immediately following the president's speech, which began: "I oppose the current engagement of U.S. military forces in Libya. Our nation cannot afford a third war and Congress has not authorized it."
Echoing Kucinich, she said: "The Constitution gives Congress the authority to declare war. Defense Secretary Gates has publicly stated that Libya is not a vital interest of the United States. Congress must debate and act on this new military engagement in Libya."
Baldwin also raised other concerns: "For a decade now, the U.S. has been fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have spent nearly a trillion dollars of borrowed money and lost nearly 6,000 American lives. Thousands more servicemen and women have suffered serious, life-altering injuries. Even as they support these wars with no clearly defined mission or exit strategy, House Republicans are seeking deep cuts in job creation efforts, veterans' services, health care, education, and transportation. These are misguided priorities."
"Our troops must be brought home safely and soon from Afghanistan and Iraq; and Congress must return its focus to creating jobs, educating our children, and ensuring access to quality, affordable health care for all Americans," concluded Baldwin.