Thursday, June 16, 2011

War in Libya? Let the People Decide

This post is an echo of one I wrote in January 2009: War in Pakistan? Let the People Decide.

There's somewhat of a
showdown brewing between the Obama administration and the Republican-led House over American military operations in Libya. Republicans argue that, according to the War Powers Act, Obama must seek Congressional authorization within 90 days of the beginning of hostilities in order to continue military involvement in Libya. Or else the operations must stop. Well, the 90-day deadline comes this weekend, and Obama has no intention of going to Congress with his Libya plans.

As the Times article linked above mentions, it is kind of ironic that we now have a Democratic president snubbing Republican congressional oversight in what is a borderline illegal abuse of executive authority. We got so used to it being the other way around.

The White House's argument is, essentially, that America's involvement in Libya does not rise to the level of war and therefore requires no congressional approval. There are no troops on the ground, American-manned aircraft have not bombed anything since April, and American personnel aren't in any real danger, they say. The US is "merely" providing logistical and intelligence support to allied operations and is using armed, unmanned drones.

The Obama administration is really splitting hairs here. If what the US is doing in Libya does not rise to the level of the "war powers" described by the act, then future presidents, acting on their own, are free to wage all-out war for 90 days and then shift to aerial bombardment and drone campaigns that continue indefinitely. Since this is what wars in the 21st Century are likely to look like, this precedent makes the War Powers Act pretty much irrelevant. No democratic oversight to speak of other than a campaign every four years. I don't know if what the administration is doing is illegal, but it's definitely antidemocratic.

Here's my simple proposal for the Libya question, the other countries where we are fighting wars of presidential decree (Pakistan and Yemen), and all future conflicts:

Require a joint resolution of Congress that declares war any time the US military is going to conduct operations that are more than a one-time strike.

It doesn't matter if the fighting is on the ground, in the air, at sea, or in space. And there should be no difference whether we're declaring war on a government, a terrorist group, or something else. The president would still have the ability to launch a strike when in "hot pursuit" of high value targets, like the raid that got bin Laden. But anything more than a one-off event would require a joint resolution of Congress.

As I've said before: Questions of war and peace are too important to be left to generals and presidents. These are questions to be put to the people. Requiring Congressional authorization for any sustained military operation is a step in that direction.


Mason said...

This is an interesting legal topic. I don’t know anything about this kind of stuff, but it seems like the issue is clearly defining “war” or what activities are OK for the president to commence unilaterally.
BTM, who decides what qualifies as a one-off military action?
It seems like there would have to be a bizarre lawsuit brought by Congress members vs the attorney general and then a court would have to lay down some precedent to provide a guideline going forward. Until then we’ll probably just get more of what we’ve seen lately. Evidently, Obama’s lawyers are sure they have a legal justification for their position (same with Bush).
It’s also interesting because the courts are hesitant to allow the legislature to give itself more power. If Congress gets too “democratic” and requires a joint resolution for minor military actions, then the resolution could easily be challenged on the grounds that it impedes on the President’s constitutional role as commander in chief.

Amy said...

Don't hate me for this...but things like this make me wonder if the parties differ mostly in theory, but not practice. It's disturbing indeed.