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.

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.

I accept that Qaddafi is a bad dude and Libya -- the planet, too -- would be better off in his absence. But when was that decided? Not two months ago; neither President Obama nor the UN Security Council was then demanding that he go. Perhaps they should have been doing so, but they weren't.

This is similar to what happened in Egypt. One day Hosni Mubarak was our ally, keeping arms out of Gaza, and maintaining a secular counterweight to Middle East extremism. Then the people rose up, finally, and to my cheers as well as those of most people who don't like dictatorships. And so Mubarak eventually said he would step down and fairly soon. He would not run again; his son would not run. Within a few months -- time to create a new constitution and shape a new government -- the Mubarak regime would at last be over. That was the time for the president of the United States to keep his mouth shut and to quietly impress upon the Egyptian military that if they kept to the pattern of support for Israel and resistance to religious extremism, the U.S. would continue to provide the funds that keep their army functioning (an aside: I go to Egypt frequently and each time meet with top Egyptian military leaders; they make a strong argument that their weapon systems, many of which date back to their flirtation with the Soviet Union, badly need replacement.) That is what is known to diplomats as "leverage" and it is leverage the Congress -- which makes that decision, too -- is happy to provide.

Instead of this back-channel quiet diplomacy, the president, a man of words, told the world Mubarak's imminent departure was not good enough: no, he had to go now. So the fighting renewed, Egyptians died in the streets, Mubarak left, and no new governance system was ready for implementation. I do not mean to overly criticize the president; these are not easy calls. But to some extent we have seen the downside of inexperience in the arena in which experience matters most. The president needs to fill in the holes; to present the country with a strategy that is comprehensive and consistent. He needs to take it to Congress, which must approve the funds and has the sole constitutional authorization to send Americans to war. (When Americans fire missiles from planes and ships and kill soldiers of another country, it's war.)

This critique does not even touch on the cost (half a billion dollars so far) at a time when we're cutting subsidies for schools, home heating oil, law enforcement; it does not touch on what happens if our missiles inadvertently kill civilians. It does not touch on what happens if one of our planes is shot down or has an accident and American airmen are killed.

The president gave a good speech about our involvement in Libya, but it wasn't sufficient. The speech downplayed the risks and the cost; it ignored the constitutional requirement that Congress approve such adventures; it assumed authority presidents don't have; it didn't defend a massive expenditure (no, half a billion dollars is not minor) while members of Congress fight over how much they may have to increase taxes or cut social security. It was a beginning, but it was not a strategy. It was not a doctrine, and it was not enough.

Image: Reuters/Larry Downing