The Corner

Libya, War Powers, and Hawkish Conservatives

President Obama is now arguing that the War Powers Act does not apply to our operation in Libya because our involvement does not rise to the level of “hostilities.” However the legalities may be resolved–and they are inherently ambiguous–the Libyan intervention has been mishandled, in more ways than one. I opposed this action from the start. (My broader concerns are elaborated in this analysis of National Security Council member Samantha Power’s influence over our operation in Libya.)

There is something fundamentally wrong when an American president takes us to war–and that is what he has done–having paid far more attention to novel doctrines of international law than to the opinion of Congress. If there were a consensus in the country and in Congress on the Libya issue, failure to gain congressional approval would matter less. If the very purpose of the operation was not to set precedents for United Nations authority over the deployment of American military force, lack of congressional authorization would also matter far less. Combine the breadth of public skepticism about our Libyan action with the internationalist aims of the intervention, and congressional authorization becomes more important, the legalities of the War Powers Act aside.

Today’s New York Times features an article that makes far too much of Republican opposition to the Libya intervention, claiming Libya skepticism as evidence that the GOP’s “hawkish consensus” is eroding. Whatever shifts there may or may not be in GOP foreign policy views, I don’t think skepticism about Libya is good evidence for a Republican break from the post-9/11 mood.

Our Libyan intervention is driven by an agenda that seeks to put international laws and international bodies in authority over sovereign states, on behalf of goals many Americans do not share. To a lesser extent, the action is meant to bolster the so-called Arab Spring. To an even lesser extent–so little we can barely admit it–we are in Libya to punish Qaddafi for his past terrorism.

As for me, I don’t feel a whit less hawkish than I did right after 9/11. I was always focused on American interests and the threat of terrorism (especially nuclear terrorism), with democratization to be deployed only as a long-term strategy, used selectively and without driving policy in the short or medium term. A Samantha Power-style action in Libya wouldn’t have met with my approval five years ago either. I believe many conservatives feel the same way. Some conservatives are more optimistic about the Arab Spring and support the Libyan intervention for that reason. But I don’t see conservative opposition to Libya as evidence of declining hawkishness. On the contrary, I want us to keep our powder dry for possible actions in places like Yemen and Pakistan, where our forces may really be needed.


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