Something important happened this weekend. Actually, it is what didn’t happen that is significant. And that is that Congress didn’t receive a request from President Obama seeking authorization for continued use of military force in Libya.
When the president committed the American military to support NATO’s role in Libya on March 19th, the White House cited the War Powers Resolution as the legal basis for the move. This resolution, passed by Congress over the veto of President Nixon in 1973, limits the conduct of military action to 60 days without seeking further Congressional approval for a declaration of war.
As presidential candidate, Obama was asked specifically about his views on the War Powers Act, a provision that lies in legal limbo and reluctantly complied with by presidents. Here is what the then-senator and former constitutional law professor said: “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.” http://www.boston.com/news/politics/2008/specials/CandidateQA/ObamaQA/
Based on his interpretation of the resolution and his acceptance of its legitimacy, Obama notified Congress about the Libyan intervention. The Justice Department also issued an opinion that acknowledged the 60-day rule without challenging its constitutionality. So it is reasonable to expect that on May 20th the president would have taken the next step required by the resolution and bring the matter back to Congress for their formal approval to continue American military action.
Instead, on Saturday Obama sent a letter to congressional leaders explaining why bringing the matter back to the Congress was unnecessary.
The role of American forces in Libya is now so “limited,” he wrote, that he doesn’t need to seek congressional approval. “Since April 4, U.S. participation has consisted of: (1) non-kinetic support to the NATO-led operation, including intelligence, logistical support, and search and rescue assistance; (2) aircraft that have assisted in the suppression and destruction of air defenses in support of the no-fly zone; and (3) since April 23, precision strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles against a limited set of clearly defined targets in support of the NATO-led coalition’s efforts.”
What does this mean in plain English? America doesn’t have any fighting troops or direct involvement in combat. Its role is providing refueling tankers, surveillance aircraft and two unmanned Predator drones to NATO-led troops.
One problem with Obama’s position is that while it is true that NATO’s forces in Libya are under the command of a Canadian, Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, his superior is the head of NATO forces, Admiral James G. Stavridis, an American. As I understand this, it means that an American, who in turn reports to his commander-in-chief, President Obama, is leading NATO forces. This seems like direct American involvement to me.
The president was a respected law professor at a major law school, so I can’t argue with him about the legality of his position. After nearly 40 years, the law’s constitutional stand is still unclear. Nevertheless, ignoring the resolution, as the president has done, is to disregard the Congressional resolution in a way that no president has ever done. Others have complied, all the while contesting its standing.
Not withstanding its constitutionality, there is good reason for the War Powers Resolution. It helps put a brake on wars being carried out unilaterally by a president. More importantly, the resolution forces the president to make the case for military intervention to the American public by needing to present the case to Congress.
I supported the Libyan intervention on humanitarian grounds. Civilians were in imminent danger of being slaughtered by Libyan troops. And it may be that this action is worthy of continued support. But there has been no public discussion about its merits. It is a silent war that has the possibility of become an open-ended wider action. According to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the war on Libya has cost the United States about $750 million so far. Given budget constraints and cut-backs on social spending, getting involved in another military action demands that there be a thoughtful, sustained and public discussion about the wisdom of the Libyan action.
On Saturday, America’s highest-ranking military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, addressed West Point cadets at their graduation. He said, “I fear they [civilians] do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.” He urged the new soldiers to breakdown the wall between military and civilian life. “This is important because a people uninformed about what they are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities our Constitution levies upon them,” Mullen said.
Libya may have been on the admiral’s mind in urging the cadets to speak candidly to civilians. It certainly was on mine. If we are directing soldiers in to combat, even in support roles, such as in Libya, it shouldn’t be the decision of the president alone to do that. That’s the reason for the War Powers Resolution, so that when the grave decision is made to send soldiers into war, the decision is a collective one, not one that the country slides into because someone else is doing the fighting for us and the bill to support the war comes at the expense of the poor and future generations.
If that is the price we want to pay, let’s all agree but with a positive assent, not the silence of the uninformed and indifferent.