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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Congress’s Foreign Policy Failure



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Jim Webb, until recently a Democratic senator from Virginia, writes scathingly of Congress’s abdication of its responsibility in the domain of foreign and defense policy. He is harshly critical of the Bush and Obama administrations alike, and he warns that the Libya intervention sets a dangerous precedent:

What did it look like when President Obama ordered our military into action in that country, and what has happened since?

Was our country under attack, or under the threat of imminent attack? No. Was a clearly vital national interest at stake? No. Were we invoking the inherent right of self-defense as outlined in the UN Charter? No. Were we called upon by treaty commitments to come to the aid of an ally? No. Were we responding in kind to an attack on our forces elsewhere, as we did in the 1986 raids in Libya after American soldiers had been killed in a Berlin disco? No. Were we rescuing Americans in distress, as we did in Grenada in 1983? No.

The president followed no clear historical standard when he unilaterally decided to use force in Libya. Once this action continued beyond his original definition of “days, not weeks,” into months and months, he did not seek the approval of Congress to continue military activities. And, while administration members may have discussed this matter with some members of Congress, the administration never formally conferred with the legislative branch as a coequal partner in our constitutional system.

Obviously, these points are not raised out of any lasting love for the late Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. But this is not about Qaddafi; it is about the manner in which our nation decides to use lethal military force abroad. This is a region rife with tribalism, fierce loyalties and brutal retaliation. Libya represented the extreme (at least so far) of executive action in the absence of the approval of Congress. We took military action against a regime that we continued to recognize diplomatically, on behalf of disparate groups of opposing forces whose only real point of agreement was that they wished to rid Libya of Qaddafi. This was not even a civil war. As then secretary of defense Robert Gates put it to this writer during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, it is not a civil war when there is no cohesive opposition facing a regime. The too frequently ignored end result of this process was not only the rampant lawlessness that possibly contributed to the assassination of our ambassador and three other U.S. officials, but also the region-wide dispersion of thousands of weapons from Qaddafi’s armories.

As Ross Douthat argued in October, one of the strangest aspects of the debate surrounding the Benghazi terrorist attack is that very few people made the argument (sound or not) that the Libya intervention had unleashed chaos in North Africa, as conservative foreign policy elites were at the very least divided about the wisdom of intervention:

How much more, then, might the president fear a narrative about how our Libyan intervention helped create a power vacuum in which terrorists groups can operate with impunity? That’s clearly happened in nearby Mali, where the ripple effects from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s overthrow have helped empower a Qaeda affiliate. In this context, it’s easy to see why the administration would hope that the Benghazi attack were just spontaneous mob violence rather than a sign of Al Qaeda’s growing presence in postintervention Libya as well.

The only good news for Obama in this mess is the fact that Romney, always intent on projecting toughness, hasn’t attacked the original decision to go to war in Libya, or tied the intervention itself to Al Qaeda’s North African advances.

If the Republican nominee were less reflexively hawkish, the White House might be facing the more comprehensive critique that it deserves — and the story wouldn’t be about just the specifics of Benghazi, but also the possibility that Obama’s entire policy in the region has put American interests and lives at risk.

It seems that it is Jim Webb who was best positioned to make this case. One day I assume Webb will write about his brief career in the U.S. Senate, and explain exactly why he chose not to break ranks more often in light of his convictions. 



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