The Root: A Vote With A Side Of Freedom Fries
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
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.
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 last 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.