Libya: When a war isn’t really a war

According to the War Powers Resolution, it's time for President Obama to ask Congress to authorize the country's actions in Libya.

“Is the Obama administration in violation of the War Powers Resolution?” asked the New York Post in an editorial. That 1973 statute gives the president the power to launch a military campaign, so long as Congress approves the action within 90 days of the start of “hostilities.” President Obama committed U.S. troops and equipment to the NATO campaign in Libya more than 90 days ago, yet is refusing to ask Congress to authorize the action. His rationale: Because the U.S. is merely supporting NATO, with no ground troops involved and no “active exchanges of fire with hostile forces,” we’re simply conducting “limited military operations” in Libya, not “hostilities.’’ The anti-war Left, as well as some Republicans, including presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, aren’t buying that absurd argument. Ten members of Congress, led by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), last week sued Obama in federal court to challenge his continued use of U.S. forces.

The immediate question is not whether the U.S. should be fighting in Libya, said Jonathan Schell in the Los Angeles Times. It’s why the president is flouting the law. U.S. planes and unmanned drones are dropping bombs in a foreign country, “and the bombs are killing and injuring people and destroying things.” Sounds like a war to me. That it somehow isn’t one is a “ridiculous position,” said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post, and the only explanation is that Obama wants to avoid a debate over the U.S.’s continued military involvement. But there are real moral and strategic issues that deserve full airing, and Congress’s input. “What about the civilians who are being killed accidentally? Assuming Qaddafi is eventually deposed or killed, then what? Will we be stuck with another ruinously expensive exercise in nation-building?’’

There’s more at stake here than Libya, said James Fallows in Even if Obama’s Orwellian word games have kept him from violating the War Powers Resolution, the “central concern, and the major threat to our politics, is that once again we are going to war essentially on one person’s say-so.” Obama’s motives in Libya may be pure, and the cause may be just, but by seizing for himself the power to declare war single-handedly, he’s setting a very dangerous precedent for future presidents whose motives and judgment may not be as good. This issue has split the GOP, said George Will in The Washington Post, with Sen. John McCain this week denouncing the “isolationist strain in the Republican Party.” But you don’t have to be an “isolationist” to doubt the value of bogging down U.S. troops in another unwinnable, unaffordable foreign misadventure.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Obama’s handling of the Libyan conflict has been marred by indecision and half-measures, said Colin Dueck in, but we’re in it now, and “once warfare is initiated, the most important thing is to win.” Defunding the Libyan war might gratify conservatives by inflicting a huge defeat on President Obama, but it would also damage U.S. prestige around the world. Nonetheless, Obama’s verbal games do not “get him off the hook,” said The New York Times in an editorial. The president has a legal and ethical responsibility to get congressional approval to keep fighting in Libya until Qaddafi’s tyrannical government falls. Congress should then give him that authorization. Pulling out now, and letting Qaddafi crush a legitimate uprising by force, would be “hugely costly—for this country’s credibility, for the future of NATO, and for the people of Libya.”

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us