One-Man War in Libya: Is Congress Mainly to Blame?

In response to my argument that President Obama is wrong not to involve Congress in the decision about war in Libya, a scholar of Congress named Charlie Stevenson says I've misidentified the real problem. He says that Congress -- if it wanted -- could have exercised far more control than it has, regardless of Obama's stand. It hasn't done so, he says, because it's convenient for legislators from both parties to posture and complain about the president rather than using tools at their disposal for serious involvement in military decisions.

It's convenient for the Republicans because whatever is bad for Obama they consider good for them. (Including, of course, the damaging insistence on short-term federal spending cuts. So what if that stifles a recovery and eliminates jobs? The worse the unemployment rate next year, the better things look for whoever is challenging Obama. And the incredibly reckless threats about the debt ceiling...) And it is convenient for the Democrats because they would prefer not to get in the middle of such a tricky and possibly no-win policy choice.

Stevenson, long ago a teacher of mine in college, is a former Senate staffer and a bona fide academic authority in Congress's role in national security matters. He writes (emphasis added):

>>I think you're right to criticize Obama, but the real target should be Congress. I think the War Powers Act is Constitutional, but has no enforcement mechanism. I also think Libya is a dubious operation and am glad that it has been kept limited.

But as I argued in my book, Congress at War, it doesn't matter what lawyers say. Congress [has] a menu of options it could choose if lawmakers had the will, and then fashioned measures that gained majority support.

I have my own little known blog, where I put these views today: There's a lot of fussing and fuming over the White House report to Congress on the Libya operations -- and most of it is misdirected. The real issue isn't a legal question, it's a policy and political question: will Congress express its collective judgment on Libya or just play political games?

The White House paper on Libya is actually a reasonable response to Speaker Boehner's lengthy list of questions -- the same sort of information made available in the ten hearings and 30 briefings on Libya documented by the Administration. Now it's up to Congress to take action....

The purpose of the War Powers Act was to prevent, or at least limit, presidential warmaking. The actual language, of course, allows it for 60 days. But in practice, every major military operation not authorized by Congress [as was done for Lebanon, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq] has been limited both in scope and duration, usually to under four months. So regardless of the legalities, the law has had the intended beneficial result. In the case of Libya, it sure looks as if the lawyers -- as well as Sec. Gates and the military leaders -- weighed in to keep the US role limited.

As President Obama said in reporting, as required by the law, the deployment of US forces against Libya, it's time for the Congress to express its will. Regrettably, Congresses of both parties have regularly evaded their responsibilities over the decades by failing to pass legislation, either to authorize or limit or halt the ongoing military operations....

It doesn't matter what the lawyers say about this. What matters is what the lawmakers do. And if that means finding majorities for something less than the most extreme positions,  tough; that's the legislative process.<<

I agree that the real issue here is political in the broadest sense, not the narrowly legalistic arguments. It would be better for the health of the republic (quaint concept!) if presidents made war-and-peace arguments to the Congress, and the Congress considered them on the merits. But presidents, including now Barack Obama, have found it convenient to short-cut that step, and Congress has willingly enabled them.

The dynamic is all the stronger now since Obama knows that the stated Republican objective is to thwart, weaken, and ultimately defeat him next year, whatever else gets broken in the process. That collateral-damage category includes the chances of economic recovery; federal credit ratings through the debt-ceiling showdown; staffing of the federal government because of the confirmation logjam; and a constitutional approach to decisions about use of deadly force.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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