Obama's War of Choice

The dangerously open-ended rationale for attacking Libya


In December 2007 The Boston Globe asked 12 presidential candidates about military action aimed at stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons. "In what circumstances, if any," the Globe asked, "would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress?"

Here is how Barack Obama responded: "The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." According to Obama's own standard, then, he violated the Constitution when he ordered a military attack against Libya. Worse, he did so in service of a dangerously open-ended rationale for military intervention that is completely unmoored from national defense.

In a letter to congressional leaders on Monday, Obama sought to justify his unilateral action by citing the March 17 U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing member states to "take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack" by forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. When Obama announced the U.S. air strikes against Libya on Saturday, he likewise sought legal refuge in other countries, saying "the writ of the international community must be enforced."

Nonsense, says Louis Fisher, a former senior specialist on separation of powers at the Congressional Research Service, who literally wrote the book on war powers. "It's impossible for Congress to take its war powers and give [them] to the U.N.," Fisher told The Wall Street Journal.  "Other than defensive actions—and there's no defensive actions here—this has to be done by Congress."

Even if Obama had bothered to obey the Constitution by seeking congressional approval, intervening in Libya's civil war would take the U.S. military in the wrong direction at a time when fiscal realities dictate that America retire from its job as global policeman. As Obama conceded on Monday, "our military is already very stretched and carries large burdens all around the world"—precisely because it is required to do much more than defend the United States.

The U.S., with 5 percent of Earth's population and no enemies on its borders, spends about as much on "defense" as the rest of the world combined. If you want to know why, consider how casually our commanders in chief order American servicemen to risk their lives for purposes that have nothing to do with national security.

Obama claims "we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy." Yes, we can, and we often do.

There is no moral consistency, and little rhyme or reason, to the U.S. government's decisions about which brutal dictators to challenge, which to leave alone, and which to support as allies. The regimes that endorsed the war with Libya—supposedly justified by outrage over "gross and systematic violation of human rights"—include quite a few, such as Gabon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia,  that are guilty of the same crimes.

In any case, American taxpayers have a right to expect that the money they are compelled to contribute to this nation's defense will be used for that purpose. American military personnel have a right to expect that their missions will have something to do with protecting U.S. security, the function they have agreed to serve.

Obama's humanitarian justification for waging war against Qaddafi's regime harks back to George H.W. Bush's 1992 intervention in Somalia's civil war, which ended so ignominiously that his own son, running for president in 2000, repudiated "nation building," calling for a more "humble" foreign policy guided by "what's in the best interest of the United States." He ended up interpreting that interest so broadly that it justified an aggressive nation-building campaign in the Middle East.

As a presidential candidate, Obama condemned his predecessor's "war of choice" in Iraq. As president, he not only continues to wage that war but endorses a justification for military action that promises one war of choice after another.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.