In olden days in foreign lands, the king only had to say, “Attack!” and the nation went to war, for whatever reason he desired. President Barack Obama’s military engagement in Libya’s ongoing war looks more like royal sovereignty than American constitutional government. Our founders constitutionally curbed executive power, requiring presidents to first secure Congress’ consent before committing American military forces to life and death struggles with foreign nations.
Since the last congressionally declared war (World War II), even the Constitution has proved too little and too vague. Presidents have committed U.S. military forces to multiple, prolonged, costly engagements without declarations of war, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. In 1973, Congress sought to legitimize the latitude assumed by presidents by passing the War Powers Act. It allows presidents to commit to military engagement for up to 60 days if the United States is under attack. After that, presidents still must justify to Congress further action and obtain approval.
President Obama, it appears, won’t be constrained by either the Constitution or the War Powers Act. Libya has not attacked us, and even though Obama concedes the North African nation doesn’t threaten U.S. interests, he has committed military forces to a NATO-led war waged since March 17. His first explanation was that civilians must be protected from their ruler, Moammar Gadhafi, but since, has urged the ousting of the Libyan dictator. Launching his campaign, Obama deigned to seek the blessings of NATO and the United Nations, but not Congress.
Although the president pledges to commit no ground troops, U.S. involvement is integral to the NATO assault, which likely would fail without the American military. Moreover, Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov interpreted recent NATO helicopter attacks as, “one step before the land operation.”
Incrementally, the Libyan war grows beyond Obama’s stated intentions.
A nonbinding 268-145 bipartisan congressional vote on June 3 scolded the president and demanded he explain his justification, or risk funding being cut off. The War Powers’ 60-day period expired nearly a month ago, but we agree with Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., that the U.S.’s unprovoked involvement didn’t allow Obama even that grace period.
McClintock sums up Obama’s war justification well: “The president may attack any country he wants for any reason he wants and the Congress has no choice but to follow.” Obama must act presidential, not kingly. He must either end U.S. military involvement or come before Congress to ask its approval.