The Corner

Leon Panetta’s Steven Chu–Like Moment of Candor

Just as the energy secretary on two occasions has either admitted he wanted high gas prices or was not too bothered by them, so the secretary of defense in candor suggested that the U.S. would first seek an international “legal basis” for U.S. armed intervention and then (and only if then?) consult the Congress. He seems to think that to use military force, permission from either the U.N. or NATO trumps the consent of the U.S. Congress — something nowhere in the U.S. Constitution.

This was not theorizing, but exactly what played out in Libya where we bombed on the authorization of the U.N. (or sorta, since we quickly exceeded no-fly zones and humanitarian aid) and the Arab League, but never went to the Congress. Again, this was something new for major combat operations, at least since the Korean War. For smaller, brief operations, presidents sometimes act without the Congress or the U.N. Bush 41 got Congress and the U.N. on board for the first Gulf War; Clinton got neither before starting to bomb Serbia; Bush 43 got Congress and then tried and failed at the U.N. Obama, in a novel manner, first got the U.N. for Libya, but never went to Congress.

I can’t think of another example of getting the U.N. on board, but not even attempting to do so with the Congress, at least as far back as Korea. Panetta at least was honest enough to articulate formally what is now apparently fact, and he perhaps thinks that either Congressional funding of military operations, or compliance with the War Powers Act (but cf. Libya) now constitutes congressional authority. Still, why not go to the Congress first, and the international organization in question second, to avoid something like Libya where the Arab League seems to count more than the Congress?


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