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Echoes of Bush in Obama’s war in Libya

Echoes of Bush in Obama’s war in Libya

The president of the United States makes almost unprecedented assertions of executive authority and launches a controversial war of choice* in the Middle East, targeting for regime change a dictator accused of committing atrocities against his own citizens, producing weapons of mass destruction, and sponsoring international terrorism. Amid the White House’s promises of a quick victory, a compliant Congress initially goes along with the war, but months later disgruntlement sets in and Capitol Hill begins to raise concerns.

The preceding paragraph might sound like the standard left-wing critique of the Bush administration’s Iraq War, of the type that was often written during the Bush years by any number of commentators. But observant readers no doubt realize that here it instead describes the Obama administration’s ongoing war — and yes, it is a war — in Libya. These are strange times we are in. From the administration’s strained interpretation of "hostilities" to contend that the War Powers Act does not apply, to last Friday’s conflicting and conflicted votes in the House of Representatives, in which a bill to defund the war failed but a separate bill denying authorization of the war passed, few of our customary political categories apply. (For some expert yet accessible discussions of the legal issues involved, check out the indispensable Lawfare blog coedited by my Strauss Center colleague Bobby Chesney).

The administration sought to spin the House vote as a win because the measure to cut off war funding did not succeed. But as Josh Rogin notes, a majority of the House in fact opposes funding the war. And the power of the purse, as Peter Feaver has pointed out, is the indisputable tool granted by the constitution to Congress to express its will on matters of war-making — and to bear the political consequences.

The political developments of the last few weeks leave few parties appearing statesmanlike. While justifiably frustrated with the White House for its lack of consultation or commitment, members of Congress who voted against the Libya operation also sent Qaddafi a message of lack of support for our military forces and lack of resolve. Yet the bulk of the blame in this case goes to the White House. As many have pointed out, the Obama administration somehow decided that it needed the support of the Arab League and the United Nations to launch the war, but not the U.S. Congress. Politically, President Obama has not made a convincing case to Congress and the American people on why we are in Libya and what the strategy is to win. Strategically, he has not devoted the necessary resources, tactics, and political will to deliver on his policy goal of ousting Muammar al-Qaddafi. Legally, he has contrived an argument to avoid the War Powers Act that one suspects even he and his lawyers know is implausible. Taken together, this is a cynical and ineffective way for a political leadership to wage war. It is not even "leading from behind" — it is not leading at all.

The anemic support at home is matched by fraying relations with our allies. Once again, the French are demanding that the U.S. commit more resources to the fight, particularly for stepped-up airstrikes. The British worry that their already overstretched and underfunded forces can’t sustain the campaign past August. And the Libyan rebels wonder why NATO does not show an apparent commitment to win.

While the legal and political morass in the U.S. is frustrating, most distressing are the conditions on the ground in Libya, where Qaddaffi’s resilience seems to have produced a fragile stalemate. I signed this Foreign Policy Initiative letter last week urging House Republicans to support the campaign against Qaddafi — and urging the Obama administration to commit the necessary resources and political will to finish the job. Four months into the war, the priority now has to be showing unity and resolve to win, and taking the needful steps to do so.

*With apologies to Peter Feaver, this trope just won’t die