So we had a situation in which a despot who had apparently reformed from his anti-American terrorism was in a civil war against an amalgam of factions that include some of the very jihadists whose active anti-Americanism was part of the rationale for embracing Qaddafi as a U.S. ally in the first place. And while much has been said about the Qaddafi regime’s atrocities, pro-intervention commentators glide conveniently by the shocking human-rights abuses — including torture and murder — carried out by the “rebels” against black Africans, whom they see as Qaddafi’s allies.
The anti-intervention argument therefore had two major points. The first was practical: There is considerable reason to believe that a post-Qaddafi Libya will be worse for the United States than Qaddafi’s Libya. Most of us think that the objective of the War on Terror is to eradicate al-Qaeda’s capacity to project power, and therefore we are resistant to strategies that have potential to empower al-Qaeda and its sympathizers. And while it now provokes snickers to suggest that Qaddafi’s Libya was better for us than other foreseeable alternatives, that conceit actually was U.S. policy from 2003 through early 2011, under both Bush and Obama. In any event, the United States did not have a vital interest in the outcome of a civil war between competing anti-American factions, and that was a good reason to stay out of it. We steer clear of military involvement in most other countries’ civil wars and insurrections, even when we have a clear preference for one side.
The second anti-interventionist point is legal — or, better, a mixture of law and politics. We are never going to settle the constitutional question of exactly how much congressional war powers are meant to check executive war powers. It is not justiciable, so no court will or should decide it. It has to be resolved by politics.
No matter what you think in principle of the need for strong executive war power (and I happen to agree with John that it needs to be very strong), as a political matter, the further you get away from a real threat against the country the more important it is to get congressional endorsement for the use of force. I’m talking prudence here; what the Constitution may demand is beside the point.
War is not an executive undertaking; it is a national undertaking. The more doubt there is about whether there are vital interests that justify the use of force, the more important it is for the president to make the case for using force — to state our interests, outline our objectives, identify whom we will be fighting and whom we will be helping, and explain why the venture is worth sacrificing American blood and treasure. When a president is unwilling to do this, as President Obama was in the case of Libya, it strongly suggests that there is no American interest worth going to war over.
In this instance, even worse, the administration sought permission from the United Nations and consulted with the Arab League — but not Congress. And worse still, the U.N. resolution was transparently pretextual: It authorized the protection of civilians, but we used it to wage war on Qaddafi’s regime while turning a blind eye to the rebels’ treatment of civilians.
All of this should be distressing to conservatives, who are gravely concerned that the Obama administration is degrading American sovereignty and attempting to run the country by executive diktat rather than through constitutional processes. How peculiar that so many commentators who are appropriately outraged by President Obama’s administrative state — the EPA’s reversal of Congress on emissions, the Interior Department’s contempt for court rulings on drilling, the NLRB’s claim of power to dictate where a corporation can do business, the Justice Department’s evisceration of the immigration laws, and so on — are nevertheless content to green-light a president’s unilateral instigation of a war, with no vital U.S. interests at stake, against a country then considered a U.S. ally, one whose military American taxpayers were then supporting, for the benefit of . . . we don’t know exactly who — except that there is no shortage of jihadist and Islamist elements among them. (See, e.g., John Rosenthal’s report, here.) This is a terrible precedent, and I fear those who supported it will rue the day, especially if there is a second Obama term.
I’m also dismayed by John’s end-justifies-the-means snark at House Republicans: “If they all thought the war was illegal and a bad idea, do they want to give Libya back to Qaddafi now?” No, what I imagine they want — just as I want, just as any patriotic American with misgivings about the Libya war wants — is that we naysayers turn out to be wrong about the rebels, that the real secular democrats in Libya turn out to outnumber the Islamists three-to-one rather than the reverse, and that a reasonably stable country that is not an enemy of the United States emerges.