Why Libya Isn't a 'Quiet Win' for America

Rather than get permission for the war, Obama waged it illegally. The rule of law in the U.S. will suffer, whatever the outcome overseas.

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My colleague Michael Hirsch makes the case that President Obama has won a "quiet victory" in Libya with the downfall of Moammar Qaddafi. "Obama's strategy amounted to staying resolutely behind the scenes throughout the five-month NATO air operation. To wit: Don't say the United States is openly engaged in ousting Qaddafi. Don't even concede the United States is going to war," he writes. "Take cover behind a political imprimatur for action from the Arab League and United Nations, and let Europe lead the strike forces. Then modestly take credit."

And "the downside of such a low-profile, stealthy U.S. role"?

According to Hirsch, it's that "it becomes that much harder to win kudos for leadership, a critical issue for Obama as he heads into the 2012 election year with his approval ratings at worrisome levels." Perhaps. But I submit that there are other downsides worth noting even as Qaddafi falls.

1) This strategy required that President Obama lie to the American people about waging a war of choice, going so far as to deny, in a memorable Orwellian twist, that the campaign even counted as hostilities.

2) It also meant that President Obama waged war without permission from Congress, a violation of the United States Constitution.

3) As a candidate, Obama told the Boston Globe that "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." His strategy in Libya required him to take actions that he'd publicly declared to be illegal, and to violate the trust of anti-war voters who took him at his word.

4) He has also made it more likely that future presidents will, without permission, launch military actions in situations that don't involve stopping imminent threats and wage wars without Congressional approval even beyond the 60-day window asserted by the War Powers Resolution, which Obama violated.

5) Finally, Obama has undermined the Office of Legal Counsel in much the same way that George W. Bush did, and in doing so, he has broken one of the central promises of his candidacy: that he understood why procedure matters.

So on one hand, Obama can modestly take credit for the role the U.S. played in Qaddafi's downfall. And yeah, it's great that he's out of power. On the other hand, Obama has violated the Constitution; he willfully broke a law that he believes to be constitutional; he undermined his own professed beliefs about executive power, and made it more likely that future presidents will undermine convictions that he purports to hold; in all this, he undermined the rule of law and the balance of powers as set forth by the framers; and he did it all needlessly, because had he gone to Congress at the beginning and asked for permission to wage war they almost certainly would've granted it.

So I don't think this a quiet victory for Obama.

I think it is a Pyrrhic victory for America.

Our Constitution, laws, and prudential norms are too valuable to be cast aside merely because doing so arguably proved advantageous in a single situation that didn't even impact our national security.

And nothing that happens in Libya can change that.

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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