One can argue about the need for consultation with Congress before using major military force. Most of us think the requirement is essential, with ample constitutional support. But the question takes on new dimensions if the commander-in-chief is a progressive, antiwar, Nobel Peace Prize–winning politician whose political career was predicated on demanding just such congressional oversight of presidential war powers — and his vice president has strutted and boasted that he would impeach a president for doing just this sort of preemptive bombing against a Middle East country that poses no immediate threat to U.S. security.
For a president like Bush (who obtained congressional authorization for Afghanistan and Iraq) or Clinton (who did not originally in the Balkans), the non-authorization would be serious; for an Obama, it reflects a level of hypocrisy that makes a mockery of his entire worldview, past and present. Fairly or not, Obama almost single-handedly is rewriting the history of dissent between 2003 and 2008 — from Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, Predators, Iraq, and preventative detention to now-optional war-making in the Middle East — and proving that prior loud protests were more partisan attacks than matters of principle. More than any other individual in recent history, the career of Obama (2002–2011) will be a historical touchstone for understanding the nature of protest in the war-on-terror years.
Second, much of this mess hinges on a number of puerile assumptions: that a bunch of televised rebels swarming a Libyan city equals the birth of democracy, as if an unknown group of dissidents could be assumed to be competent and well-intentioned; and that a monster like Qaddafi — with a four-decade pedigree of near-constant violence — could be expected to simply step down. Apparently, we were to believe that he would follow the example of Mubarak’s tail-between-the-legs flight; or that he would depart because Barack Hussein Obama ordered him to, or because there was some chance of serious violence if he did not; or that he would find exile a preferable alternative to a stormy continuance of his rule. I think most adolescents in the real world would know that the above assumptions were all fantasies.
A ruler like Qaddafi is part Milosevic, part Saddam, part Noriega, and part Kim Jong Il. They stay in power for years through killing and more killing (to paraphrase Dirty Harry, “They like it”), and they do not leave, ever, unless the U.S. military either bombs them to smithereens or physically goes into their countries and yanks them out of their palaces. Period. They most certainly do not care much for the concern of the Arab League, the U.N., or a contingent from Europe, or a grand verbal televised threat from a U.S. president — again, even if his name is Barack Hussein Obama and he is not George Bush.
Sorry, but that is where we are and where we’ve always been, so we can either quit, as in Lebanon and Somalia; send in the Marines to take charge of postwar stabilization, as in Afghanistan and Iraq; target Qaddafi and bomb him incessantly until he is broken, as in Clinton’s Balkan air campaign; or schedule a multiyear, Iraq-style no-fly zone, with ample latitude to bomb now and then to carve out sanctuaries within Libya. Those are the options, and one will be chosen one way or another, even if the president thinks he can once again vote present on all of them.