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Congress can choose to sit back and do nothing, like it has so far, or rubber stamp Obama's decision. Either way the president does what he likes with his usurped warmaking powers. Congress can start the clock themselves via concurrent resolution, but despite a smattering of expressions of anger from individual members, our representatives show no signs of caring enough in the case of the current war.
Obama is utterly unashamed of his total reversal on presidential war powers. He’s offered a set of confused justifications that would be a recipe for war all the time if he actually took them seriously as a set of principles. The real principle behind them is simply: I’ll start a war when I damn well feel like it.
That suits some of his most devoted fans just fine, even if they think it’s likely he'll make mistakes. The Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum stated this most baldly:
If it had been my call, I wouldn't have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I'd literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he's smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust his judgment, and I still do.
This sort of attitude (which Drum tried to finesse later) is what imperial presidents are made of. Obama has fortuitously announced his re-election campaign in the midst of violating one of the key selling points of his first victory. And though a majority of Americans doubt there’s a meaningful plan at work in Libya, an Obama who wants to collect every possible penny from his base for his billion dollar campaign clearly did not think that assuming imperial warmaking powers would cause him electoral harm. Sadly, I suspect he’s right.
Predictably, the Libya mission has extended beyond just enforcing a no-fly zone to targeting Qadaffi forces on the ground. Innocent civilians are being killed by our actions, as are some of the rebels, who we are ipso facto (but not quite officially) on the side of in a civil war. As of today, it’s allegedly not a U.S. operation anymore but a NATO one, and we’ll see how significant that ends up being as this few-days turned few-weeks operation stretches into the future. And, surprise, we’ve had secret agents on the ground in Libya even before Obama told us we were entering it.
In the end, despite the alleged set of high-value purposes behind the expensive and murderous dropping of bombs from the air, we are by no means committed to actually insuring it stops the fantasized bad end it was supposed to prevent. And naturally in our all-American world, the whole operation is waged against a country that cooperated with us on weapons programs and was the recipient of nearly $5 million in aid from the U.S., including military aid, in the past few years.
The Libya operation is a full-service debacle—moral and strategic and constitutional—and still many of the president’s ideological allies who hated Bush’s Iraq war love Obama’s Libyan one, with John Judis in The New Republic pretty much openly declaring the necessity and propriety of shedding blood for oil.
Why is Obama imperial when it comes to war? I wish I could understand the actual mental and emotional motivations, but what matters for us as citizens is that he’s imperial because he can be. Congress doesn’t want to stop him. (They get to disapprove later if they choose while giving him his way now.) Both Obama’s and other presidents’ history of outright lies about their foreign policy intentions shows that voters are powerless to effectively choose a president based on his foreign policy views. The Constitution should stop him, but the Constitution is not self-enforcing. If the people and Congress treat it as if it’s dead, then it is. And that’s one thing that “constitutional scholar” and trustworthy genius Obama understands very well.