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.
Like Congress’s timid assertion of its powers last Friday, the War Powers Act is a gentle reminder to presidents that taking the nation to war requires taking a vote of the nation’s legislative body.
The War Powers Act dictates that the president must cease any military action unauthorized by Congress within sixty days of its commencement. Eighty days have passed since the president embroiled the U.S. in Libya—and the campaign goes on unabated. President Obama has whimsically behaved as though this rule does not apply to him. La Loi, C’est Moi.
The 1973 resolution decrees, “The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situation where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances.” If that last part seems prescient in light of the “limited kinetic action” in Libya, keep in mind that it was written when it was fashionable to call wars “conflicts.”
The president didn’t consult Congress. He talked to France. He planned with NATO. He received the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council. But the president left the branch of government constitutionally empowered to send the country to war out of the process entirely.
The War Powers Resolution is another law passed by a Democratic Congress to a restrain a Republican president that becomes null and void once a Democrat regains the White House. Like Barack Obama becoming warden of Guantanamo Bay or ordering the assassination of al Qaeda’s leader when he had decried the waterboarding of bin Laden’s underlings, the War Powers Act reversal is in keeping with a president whose current actions conflict with his past words.
The Gulf of Tonkin resolution may have fibbed and the authorization for the Iraq War may have jumbled some facts. But at least Presidents Johnson and Bush paid deference to the oaths they made to the Constitution. The war lie President Obama told came in the first moments of his presidency when he swore to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of numerous books, including Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America, forthcoming from ISI Books this fall. He writes a Monday column for HumanEvents.com and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.