New York Times: War in Libya Is Illegal, Musn't Be Stopped

Its editorial board says Obama is violating the War Powers Resolution and insists Congress should endorse his policy

liba shells.jpg

It's time for The New York Times editorial board to take a hard look at itself. In an item published Thursday, it asserted that President Obama is breaking the War Powers Resolution in Libya:

Mr. Obama made the wrong choice, trying to evade his responsibility under the 1973 War Powers Act to seek Congressional authorization within 60 days of introducing armed forces into "hostilities" -- or terminate the operation. The White House claimed that the Pentagon's limited operations are not the sort of "hostilities" covered by the act. It is not credible.

It's a law the newspaper recently declared to be very important:

The War Powers Act is an essential balance to the White House's -- any White House's -- power to wage war. Carving out an exception for drones or airstrikes would be a dangerous precedent, especially in an era when so much fighting can be done from the air and by remote control.

Nor is the ed board composed of people who take rule breaking lightly. During the Anthony Weiner scandal, for example, it argued that if the Congressman sent illicit Tweets with his work computer or his official Blackberry, he should resign from public office. Illegally sending American troops to fight abroad is a more serious matter than sending penis pictures by direct message. Right? So what is the editorial board demanding, having concluded that President Obama broke official protocol and the law? That Congress censure him? That they vote to stop the War in Libya? That they impeach the commander-in-chief for his brazenly unlawful behavior?

Nope.

Here is their assessment of the options before Congress:

One measure, sponsored by Representative Thomas Rooney and apparently backed by the House leadership, would allow financing only for American surveillance, search-and-rescue missions, planning and aerial refueling. Republicans say that if it passes, the Pentagon would have to halt drone strikes and attacks on Libyan air defenses. They claimed it would do minimal damage to the alliance and its campaign because the United States would still be providing some support. But the damage to this country's credibility, and its leadership of NATO, would be enormous. Any sign that the United States is bailing out could lead others to follow.

It is hard to view this bill as anything but a partisan play to embarrass the president. The one sure victor would be Libya's strongman, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who would see it as a sign that NATO's resolve is faltering and another reason to keep brutalizing his people. The second measure -- and much preferred alternative -- is a version of a bipartisan resolution proposed in the Senate by John Kerry and John McCain. It would authorize American participation in the Libya air campaign for one year but bar the use of ground troops, which President Obama has said he has no plans of deploying.

The ed board is staffed by savvy rhetoricians, so they'd never put it this way, but what they're saying, in effect, is that the response to lawbreaking by the president should be to authorize what he wants to do and is already doing extra-legally, because to do otherwise would damage American credibility.

Its as if the Washington Post, in the aftermath of Watergate, called on Congress to retroactively approve executive branch snooping in the campaign headquarters of political opponents. After all, otherwise Americans would face an unprecedented scandal that would do grave damage to our image. Of course, the Washington Post is also on record asserting that Obama is acting illegally in Libya, but encouraging him to keep it up.

These newspapers cared about process during the Bush years.

What happened?

Libya is controversial partly because our interests there are minimal. That isn't to say that ending the war wouldn't have consequences. It is only to say that once a war begins, ending it will always have consequences. And most of the time they'll be far more consequential to American interests than whatever happens in a North African nation that doesn't directly affect us.

Put another way, if Congress won't end this war after it has begun, it is signalling that it'll never force an end to any conflict - that if the president engages abroad, he'll get his way automatically.

It's a recipe for more lawless war.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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