The constitutionality of the War Powers Act has been in doubt since Congress first passed the statute in 1973. Nonetheless, every president from Nixon through Bush has dutifully complied with the controversial law – until now. Yet, an unlikely alliance between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats has not been able to hold the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on the issue, largely because GOP leadership in the House is providing the president with cover.
Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) Dan Burton (R-IN) and Michael Capuano (D-MA) had co-sponsored a resolution calling upon the administration to withdraw United States forces from the situation in Libya no later than 15 days after adoption of the resolution. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) moved to supersede a vote on the resolution last week, asking the House to approve an alternative resolution that directed the president to explain “in detail” the U.S.’s “security interests and objectives” that justify supporting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bombing campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
The resolution passed the House by a vote of 268 to 145. That passage took the steam out of the Kucinich-Barton resolution, which fell to defeat by a nearly mirror-image margin: 148 to 265. The sequence of events marked the first time that Speaker Boehner has used the power of his position to achieve an end he personally desired. Heretofore, Boehner has been committed to letting the House “work its will,” rather than using the power of the speakership in gate-keeper fashion as his predecessors from both sides of the aisle have so often done.
Why not hold Obama accountable under the War Powers Act? There are a couple of arguments, neither of which holds much water with leftists or conservatives. First, there is the “NATO viability” argument. Unarguably, it has been NATO, not the UN, that has been the driving force for liberty and freedom around the globe for the past sixty years, and the United States has always been the leading light in NATO. Abandoning what is now officially a NATO operation in Libya will diminish America’s leadership role in NATO, or so the argument goes.
The flip side of that argument should be obvious: what’s the value of a leadership role if it doesn’t allow you to actually lead? If America is somehow diminished in NATO by refusing further involvement in Libya, then America clearly isn’t leading – it’s dancing to a European tune.
The other argument may be described as the “legal niceties” position. Under this tortuous train of thought, since America officially surrendered command of the Libyan operation to NATO on April 1, the War Powers Act no longer applies; congressional approval for the operation – required within 60 days of any military action – is not required because it is not, strictly speaking, a U.S. undertaking.
That kind of legal hair splitting would have made Democrats foam at the mouth during the Bush era. After all, George W. Bush actually obtained congressional approval from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and many Dems still labeled them as “illegal” wars.
No such mental gymnastics are needed to evaluate the Libyan adventure. The fact is that American drones, American bombs and American dollars are still at the heart of “Operation Unified Protector,” the continuing effort to unseat Qaddafi and support Libyan rebels. United States Navy Admiral James Stavridis remains in place as supreme commander in NATO, ultimately responsible for the operation, no matter that Canadian Air Force General Charles Bouchard is technically in charge of the actual campaign. This is an American led and American financed operation, and American lives are at risk every day. It’s beyond ludicrous to pretend that anything else is true.
Irony abounds in the case of Libya, as it so often seems to do under the Obama administration. During his campaign in 2008, the president pledged to put an end to what he considered to be arbitrary, unpopular acts of war on the international stage, but he now finds himself engaged in hostilities that no one in Congress has approved and for which he has not sought any official blessing. And, more oddly still, he finds that a conservative Republican charged with leadership of the House of Representatives is covering his back on the issue. Neither Obama nor Boehner is likely to emerge from this debate smelling like a rose. Both have let their core constituents down and both would do well to remember that those voters won’t forget.