May 20 was a significant date, although it may have passed you by. That was the 60th day of Operation Fiasco, our war in Libya, which by the War Powers Resolution of 1973, called for a report by President Barack Obama to the Congress and a request for authorization to continue combat.
The War Powers Resolution is itself of dubious authority. It was passed in the wake of the Vietnam War as a check upon the kind of mission creep and covert activity that had embroiled us in Vietnam. It thus attempted to assert control over presidential adventurism, but at the fatal cost of legitimating ad hoc interventions. Congress only insisted that it be cut in on the action.
In doing so, Congress undermined its own exclusive war-making authority under the Constitution. Better some controls over a runaway executive, was the thought, than none at all. In that concession to Cold War reality, where brushfire wars had become commonplace, and the Big One — a full-scale thermonuclear war between the superpowers at 15 minutes’ notice—had rendered such formalities as a declaration of war obsolete, it seemed as much power as Congress could realistically reserve to itself.
This was a tragic mistake, and when some future Tacitus writes the history of the decline and fall of the American republic, the War Powers Resolution will bulk large. Russia’s nuclear arsenal is now a threat only to the extent that it can be pilfered, and no power in the world will attack the United States as Japan once did. That leaves only small “wars of choice,” to use the currently fashionable term for projections of American firepower around the globe. There is no reason why these should not require prior authorization by Congress, and not merely notification after the fact. There is no reason why they should occur at all, since under international law (to which the U. S. is a party) individual states may use force only in self-defense. But we will stay here in the realm of domestic politics. All the wars in which the United States is currently engaged are illegal with the possible but dubious exception of the one in Afghanistan, and all without exception are in violation of the Constitution, since none have been declared by Congress.
Let us return to Libya. It is a country that has suffered brutal imperial occupation, was a combat theater during World War II, and had an initial round of American bombing in 1986. For the past 42 years it has been ruled by an idiosyncratic dictator, Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi, with whom our relations were for many years strained. In the past few years, Gaddafi had been readmitted to international polite society, and both the Bush and Obama administrations had spoken positively of his commitment to regional stability. The insurrections of the Arab Spring spilled over into Libya in the form of a tribal (not national) revolt against Gaddafi, which he had all but quelled when the United States, given cover by its NATO proxy, intervened. The pretext for the intervention was to protect the population of Benghazi, the rebel capital, from slaughter. There is no evidence that this threat was real; Gaddafi had promised amnesty to all who surrendered, and the proximity of the American Sixth Fleet as well as the sizable press presence in Benghazi gave the international community ample leverage to ensure that he kept his word. The fact was that Europe, spooked by the arrival of a few thousand refugees from Tunisia, meant to keep out those of Libya, while Obama, stuck with America’s long-time embrace of local tyrants, wanted to score some cheap points with the Arab Street.
The result has been a haphazard three-month bombing party, whose goal soon expanded from protecting Benghazi to removing Gaddafi. As Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out candidly, the United States had no strategic interests in Libya; but it was in fact the very absence of such interests that made Libya an easy target, since nothing would be risked except ordnance. In contrast, the U. S. did not intervene in Yemen, where the fighting against another dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was just as intense, or in Syria, where the threat of massacre by Bashar al-Assad is far more credible. (Of course, we have been carrying on a covert war in Yemen against Al-Qaeda, but with Saleh’s consent; open-ended military actions don’t count as wars where the host dictator spreads out a welcome mat, except to the dead.)
In Libya, Gaddafi was expected to cave or be killed, but he remains alive and defiant. Benghazi is safe, but the national capital, Tripoli, is under bombardment, with the inevitable civilian casualties. To protect one city by (indefinitely) bombing another one is not military success. At this point, killing Gaddafi would score no political points either, but only create a martyr in the Arab world. The war is an intense embarrassment, and Congress, with a Republican-controlled House, has its own points to score. Obama’s response has been that (a) he has consulted with Congress all along, and so needs to make no formal report to it; and (b) that the U. S. is not actually engaged in “hostilities” because it is merely bombing Libya, not invading it with combat troops. (Presumably, if the Libyan Air Force were bombing Washington, D.C. and deliberately targeting the White House, that would not count as war either.)
The House of Representatives actually debated and voted on a resolution demanding withdrawal from Libya, introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). It failed, 265-148, despite bipartisan support (87 Republicans were joined by 61 Democrats), but the old Constitution did have its day. A weaker resolution passed, chastising Obama for failing to provide a “compelling rationale” for the Libyan adventure but going no further. The Founding Fathers were made of sterner stuff, and put the power of impeachment into the Constitution for a reason (I mean a reason other than sending an intern’s dress to the dry cleaners). But that was another day.
Meanwhile, Obama’s self-imposed deadline to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan is approaching. That war is, of course, going no better, and the Pentagon is nervous about any force reduction. Our host there, the corrupt and drug-addled Hamid Karzai, has lately referred to us as an occupation force. Karzai doesn’t want us to leave at once, indeed not for decades, because he wouldn’t last 24 hours without our protection. But he wants us to know it’s his sovereign right to bite the hand that feeds him, and also to tell us exactly what his fellow countrymen actually think of us. Should one not add that he was also speaking the simple truth?
This has hurt the feelings of our departing ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, who responded that when Americans hear such disparaging remarks, they “are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here.”
Speaking personally, I am not in the least confused about the serial calamity of this hopeless, unwinnable and indefensible war, and I have been weary of it for well over nine years. It, too, has its role — a much more substantial one than that of our sideshow in Libya — in the decline of our country and the evisceration of our republican institutions.
In the debate over Libya, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked rhetorically, “Shall the president, like the [18th-century] king of England, be a dictator in foreign policy? They [authors of the Constitution] said, ‘No. We don’t trust kings.’”
Well, we may not trust them, but we certainly have them, thanks to the supineness of a Congress that has abdicated its Constitutional role, and a public that has failed to recall it to duty. So it is that even an almost tragicomically weak and ineffective leader like Barack Obama can play the bully-boy abroad at will, and get away with it.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at [email protected].