Congress Rolls Over for Obama on Libya

Congress should have demanded Obama get congressional authorization on Libya involvement far sooner.

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As Congress and the media remain fixated on the latest sexcapade to hit Capitol Hill, both devote the scantest attention to an even greater scandal: Congress’s abnegation of its constitutional duty to give its ascent to the president’s placing of U.S. troops in harm’s way and to compel him to tell the American people what objective he seeks to further through his actions.

Last March, while the Obama administration was frantically trying to shore up support from the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council for a “no-fly” zone over Libya, it made no attempt to seek congressional authorization. Nor did it seriously consult with congressional leaders. It claimed to have “briefed” them, but did not even pretend that there had been any serious debate or give and take. In a March op-ed in the New York Times, Anne Marie Slaughter, a former policy adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stated that “debate” had been held. She should have added,  “but not in the place where it was required, Congress." That is where the U.S. Constitution invests the power to declare war and where American people hope their interests and security will be protected. [Vote now: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?]

Out of town, on one of its routine and excessive “breaks,” Congress voiced not a word of protest. The day after the no-fly zone was imposed, House Speaker John Boehner, third in line to the presidency, issued a two-paragraph statement. After condemning Muammar Qadhafi’s savage attacks on his own people, the speaker’s statement continued:

The President is the commander-in-chief, but the Administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America’s role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished. Before any further military commitments are made, the Administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved.

It said nothing about the administration having to seek congressional authorization for its actions.

Obama responded that he would act in conformity with the War Powers Act, which requires the president to seek congressional approval for continuing congressionally unsanctioned military action beyond 60 days. The deadline came and went without so much as a peep from the supposedly co-equal branch. Congress even allowed the president to amend the law all by by himself when he announced that NATO would extend the Libyan incursion by 90 days. Again, he made no mention of needing congressional authorization. [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]

Last week, in face of an unusual coalescing of very liberal Democrats, very conservative Republicans, and libertarians behind Rep. Dennis Kuchinich’s resolution condemning the president’s actions in Libya, the House showed signs of life. It passed a resolution the speaker sponsored, requiring the administration to provide, within 14 days, detailed information about the nature, cost, and objectives of the American contribution to the NATO operation, as well as an explanation of why the White House did not come to Congress for permission to continue to take part in the mission.

Not surprisingly, it said nothing about why Congress did not act earlier or why its committees did not subpoena administration officials to account for their actions, let alone explain the nature of the U.S. mission in an open public forum. The administration still cannot decide whether Qadhafi will be allowed to remain in power or removed and what role the United States will play in future reconstruction efforts and “nation building.” Congress should compel it to do so.

With Obama’s party in control of the Senate, the Boehner resolution is not expected to gain traction. There, in a perfect demonstration of Orwellian semantics, the administration seeks a nonbinding Senate resolution that would sanction “the limited use of military force by the United States in Libya.” In the irony of ironies, its handmaiden will be Sen. John F. Kerry, who first burst on the national scene when, in testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee he now heads, he urged Congress to bring an end to an undeclared war he considered unconstitutional and illegal. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]

Fortunately, not everyone on Capitol Hill has been napping as the president, with apparent congressional acquiescence, has sought to make mincemeat of the part of the Constitution that, more than any other, keeps the United States a republic in which wars are waged after legislators elected by citizens have engaged in serious debate. The framers had carefully studied how past republics perished as emperors and kings waged wars on whims.

Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking member of Kerry’s committee, has been a solitary, if often lonely, voice in the wind since the hostilities began. In the words of the gentleman from Indiana, who once acted as Obama’s mentor in the Senate on foreign affairs: “The Founding Fathers gave Congress the power to declare war for good reason: It forces the president to present his case in detail to the American public, allows for a robust debate to examine that case, and helps build broad political support to commit American blood and treasure overseas. Little of that has happened here.”

Would that Obama once again played the obliging student and learned his lesson. Nothing would do more to weaken U.S. prestige in the world than an open congressional revolt. It would come precisely when the president is having a devil of a time persuading Congress to agree to pay the nation’s debts.