Obama's False Premises for War

The president assumed authority for the Libyan adventure without permission from Congress, which is more brazen than Bush's march into Iraq


If there is one piece of the national agenda that is uniquely the president's turf -- an area in which we must hope the president is truly competent -- it's in managing the nation's foreign policy.

It's true that the Constitution places war powers, final approval of treaties, and even the final word on appointment of ambassadors in the hands of Congress. Congress also can affect foreign policy by applying conditions to foreign assistance appropriations or by limiting contributions to international organizations or by prohibiting certain activities (remember the restriction on funding the Contras in Nicaragua?). But everything else, including the shaping of America's interactions with the rest of the world, is decidedly a presidential prerogative. And unlike the contention that surrounds domestic proposals, no sane American can hope the president fails in properly managing our relationships with both enemies and allies.

Which is why President Obama's reaction to the eruptions in the Middle East is so troubling.

We have seen the downside of inexperience in the arena in which experience matters most. The president needs to fill in the holes.

The bigger issue of the moment is our engagement in Libya, and here there are several indications of a serious lack of both experience and coherence, and a disturbing Bush-like embrace of unconstitutional claims to power.

The first question is not whether we should be acting in Libya, but who should make that decision. Obama has made not one but two disturbing choices. The first was to decide that he, not Congress, would make the call to intervene, despite clear language in the Constitution designating the president as the commander but the Congress as the only branch entitled to decide whether to engage militarily. Obama donned the crown even more brazenly than either of the two George Bushes. The first asked Congress to authorize the first Gulf War and the second asked Congress to authorize the use of military force -- meaning that both the first Gulf War and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan proceeded with congressional authorization. Obama, in sending American ships and planes to Libya, simply claimed the right to act on his own. And then did so.

The "I'm King" scenario is bad enough, but Obama also has a second story available if we're not ready to buy that one. In this tale, Obama acted not as a king, but under the authority granted to him by the United Nations Security Council. But while the Founders had their disagreements, none ever envisioned that the question of whether or not to send Americans on a military mission would be left up to other nations. Obama assumed authority for the Libyan adventure on two false premises, not one.

Then there comes the question of why we are there. The president makes a good point that preventing the slaughter of innocents and the rule of dictators is a necessity if we are to live up to our American values. But is the Obama doctrine then that we will intervene in every such case? If people seeking democracy and all its benefits -- the right to vote, to have their own delegates make the laws, to write and speak as they choose -- rise up in Saudi Arabia, will we go to their aid? In Pakistan? In China? The Obama doctrine seems a bit incomplete.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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