Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Ackerman on Obama and Libya

My former AINN colleague Spencer Ackerman, who is as brilliant a foreign policy analyst as there is, blisters Obama on Libya and the War Powers Act:

Obama’s line is absurd on its face, as John Boehner contends in Charlie Savage’s well-reported story. Ask anyone on the ground in Libya if missiles fired from the drones overhead represent “hostilities,” the legal criterion at issue. QED. Not that I’m a lawyer, but I am able to watch and able to read, two qualities you’d have to lack to sign onto Obama’s position.


And then he ponders this question that has occurred to me as well: Why be reluctant to ask Congress for approval of a war? When was the last time Congress said no to a war the president wanted to wage? It hasn’t been in my lifetime. Or my father’s, for that matter.

It only makes sense to deny the need for congressional approval on the Libya war if you don’t think you’ll win a vote. Guess what: that’s why the Constitution invests Congress with the much-eroded power to declare war. Congress has shown it will vote for nearly any war — even the Clinton-hating GOP Congress of 1999 didn’t go so far as to stop the Kosovo war. When you can’t convince Congress a war is worth fighting, it’s really not worth fighting.

As Matthew Yglesias has written, Congress abdicates its duties over warmaking all the time. If Boehner really wants to make this an issue, more power to him (sorry). No time like the present to reverse this sorry, decades-long trend. Similarly, Obama could still make some forceful case to Congress for the war. He might find Congress really isn’t willing to stop the war. Whatever. Either course is preferable — legally, and for the sake of a responsible decision — to what Obama’s doing now.

Quite right. And then there’s this, which I suspect is far more true than even Obama himself realizes:

And let’s take the most cynical interpretation here. Maybe Obama would welcome congressional interruption of the war. That would give him the exit strategy he’s so sorely lacked for Libya from day one.

This Libya campaign has been a disaster from the beginning. Not because a case can’t be made for the intervention but because Obama has never made a coherent case in the first place. The case he did make necessarily requires us to take Gadhafi out of power, something the president was never willing to commit to. So he’s tried to have it both ways from the start — it’s just a limited intervention but with a justification that requires far more.

By making the case from the start on the grounds of the necessity to protect Libyan lives against Gadhafi’s barbarism — which is not an unreasonable moral argument at all — the inevitable conclusion is that Gadhafi must be removed from power. If we let up the war, there is no question that Gadhafi will begin to cleanse his country of those who dared to oppose him. Tens of thousands of people will undoubtedly die.

So where does that leave us in terms of options? No one wants to commit troops there and take the man out of power, but the whole justification for the bombing campaign is nonsensical if you leave him in power. It’s been poorly thought out from the start. Maybe that’s why Obama won’t go to Congress, because it requires him to make a coherent case that he simply won’t make because the argument for the bombing is clearly at odds with the means being used.