President Barack Obama foresaw a quick war in Libya. That was 12 weeks ago. Last week, NATO announced another 13 weeks of military operations.“The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya,” the president promised at the outset of military operations. “And we are not going to use force beyond a well-defined goal—specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.” But with the mission’s “well-defined goal” of protecting civilians morphing into an endgame of regime change, the promise to withhold ground troops no longer seems so sacrosanct. On Saturday, NATO unleashed attack helicopters upon Muammar Qaddafi’s forces for the first time since the campaign’s launch on March 19. Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov interpreted the introduction of rotary-wing aircraft into the NATO operation as “one step before the land operation.” He explained this weekend at a military conference in Singapore, “We consider that what is going on is either consciously or unconsciously sliding towards a land operation.”
The prolonged but restrained campaign presents both a public relations and constitutional challenge for the president.
The legal and publicity problems converged in Friday’s 268-145 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives rebuking the president for bypassing Congress in launching Operation Odyssey Dawn. “The President has failed to provide Congress with a compelling rationale based upon United States national security interests for current United States activities regarding Libya,” the John Boehner-sponsored resolution reads. It calls on the president not to deploy ground troops in Libya and demands a presidential explanation for the legal basis of waging a war without congressional authorization.
Candidate Obama spoke unambiguously about the necessity of the executive branch to gain congressional approval before attacking a foreign nation. In an oft-quoted interview, he told the Boston Globe in December 2007: “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.” His secretary of state said essentially the same thing when she competed against her current boss for the presidency. But that was when a Republican occupied the Oval Office.
There isn’t even a pretense within the administration that Libya poses a threat to the United States. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly said as much, conceding that the North African country is neither a threat nor “a vital national interest to the United States.” Instead, humanitarian concerns provide justification for the multination endeavor.
Defending Libyans from a murderous tyrant is a noble aim. So is defending the Constitution. The process outlined by the document that governs the U.S. government delegates the power to declare war not to a solitary man but to the representatives of the people and the states. Just as 535 commanders in chief is inimical to sense and the Constitution, so too is one man deciding war and peace. One can say the Founders were against unilateralism, too—albeit of a different sort.