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Liberating Libya

Presidential presumption and congressional cowardice lift the limits on military intervention.

Jacob Sullum
August 24, 2011

After U.S.-backed rebels entered Tripoli on Sunday, The Washington Post noted that NATO "has been anxious not to be seen acting as the rebel air force in a coordinated strategy" because its "United Nations mandate is limited to the protection of Libyan civilians." Still, a "senior NATO official" admitted, the alliance's firepower and intelligence sharing helped bring about "the collapse of the regime and its capability to direct its forces," so "the effect of what we were doing was not dissimilar."

No kidding. Since the United States and its allies began taking sides in Libya's civil war five months ago, it has been clear that protecting noncombatants was a pretext for overthrowing Muammar al-Qaddafi. But even if the U.N. had endorsed the latter goal (a dicey proposition, given the implicit threat to the autocracies that supported the intervention), a vote to replace Qaddafi would not have explained why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created to defend Europe and the U.S. against a hegemonic, totalitarian threat that no longer exists, had a legitimate stake in the internal power struggles of a North African desert kingdom.

Nor could any U.N. resolution, no matter how broad, authorize American participation in the assault on Qaddafi's forces, because the U.S. Constitution gives Congress—and not, as President Obama seems to think, the U.N. Security Council—the power to declare war. Since there was no threat to national security, let alone an immediate one along the lines of an armed invasion, Obama was required to seek congressional approval for his war against Libya.

In a New York Times op-ed piece published a few weeks ago, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker and Yale law professor Oona Hathaway suggested "the president didn't try very hard to get Congress to agree to the intervention" because "he didn't think he had the votes." Didn't try very hard? He didn't try at all. Only after the operation was under way did he let it be known that a congressional endorsement would be swell—though not, in his view, strictly necessary. And who, aside from U.S. presidents and rebellious children, thinks it's OK not to ask for permission because the answer might be no?

Obama not only failed to seek the constitutionally required declaration of war; he disregarded the War Powers Act, which says troops must be withdrawn from hostilities within 60 days in the absence of congressional authorization. His rationale—that bombing military targets in Libya and helping to overthrow its government did not constitute "hostilities"—was so laughable that it was rejected even by the war's supporters in Congress and the press, not to mention his own Office of Legal Counsel.

Congress, for its part, never got around to taking a position on the war one way or the other, presumably because legislators did not want to be blamed for the consequences. Obama may not end up paying a political price either, since the elimination of a brutal, four-decade-old dictatorship is apt to overshadow the crimes and failures of whatever regime takes its place for the foreseeable future—or at least until next year's elections.

This combination of presidential presumption and congressional cowardice gives one person the power to attack other countries at will, without even bothering to pretend that the violence has anything to do with national defense. Under Obama's rules of war, excuses for armed intervention are everywhere. In his March 28 speech explaining the motivation for his Libyan adventure, he declared that "we should not be afraid to act" in situations where "our interests and values are at stake," which include genocide, mass murder, the threat of war, regional insecurity, natural disasters, and the possibility of disrupted commerce.

To the contrary, we should be afraid of using military force to pursue such a wide-ranging, never-ending mission. We should be even more afraid of entrusting this power to a single man, especially one who blithely risks other people's lives to satisfy the inscrutable demands of his own troubled conscience.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.


Jacob Sullum is Senior Editor


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