Shadow Government

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The Libyan war crosses another threshold

A few weeks ago, President Obama’s military venture in Libya crossed the 60-day threshold stipulated in the War Powers Act. Nothing much happened. If my counting is correct, this weekend the war will cross another somewhat more artificial threshold: the 78-day mark that the Kosovo War lasted in 1999 before Serbian leader Milosevic capitulated to ...

SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, President Obama's military venture in Libya crossed the 60-day threshold stipulated in the War Powers Act. Nothing much happened.

If my counting is correct, this weekend the war will cross another somewhat more artificial threshold: the 78-day mark that the Kosovo War lasted in 1999 before Serbian leader Milosevic capitulated to the NATO bombing campaign. The Kosovo threshold is not totally irrelevant. After all, the Libyan operation is more like the Kosovo one than any other military venture you could name. Yet, my best guess is that crossing this threshold will not be any more consequential than crossing the War Powers Act threshold was.

These milestones are the work of pundits, not strategists, and their impact on the public is less than pundits claim.

A few weeks ago, President Obama’s military venture in Libya crossed the 60-day threshold stipulated in the War Powers Act. Nothing much happened.

If my counting is correct, this weekend the war will cross another somewhat more artificial threshold: the 78-day mark that the Kosovo War lasted in 1999 before Serbian leader Milosevic capitulated to the NATO bombing campaign. The Kosovo threshold is not totally irrelevant. After all, the Libyan operation is more like the Kosovo one than any other military venture you could name. Yet, my best guess is that crossing this threshold will not be any more consequential than crossing the War Powers Act threshold was.

These milestones are the work of pundits, not strategists, and their impact on the public is less than pundits claim.

(To be fair, the 60-day clock stipulated by the War Powers Act is also the work of legislators and so should, in theory, carry much more weight. As we are seeing, however, it does not appear to. This is because the War Powers Act is based on a profoundly false premise: that Congress can coerce the President into doing its bidding even when Congress is unwilling to wield the extraordinarily powerful levers the Constitution already grants it. Congress hoped that the War Powers Act would enable Congress to constrain the Executive branch’s ability to engage in military operations without requiring that Congress engage in the politically risky business of actually voting against those military operations, for instance voting to forbid the expenditure of funds. It hasn’t worked that way. Congress can indeed constrain the Executive branch, but only if Congress is willing at the same time to put its own political necks on the line. If they are unwilling to do so, the War Powers Act will not provide substitutionary constraint.)

The Kosovo mark is a handy hook for raising awkward questions, such as: Even the Kosovo war, as dodgy an affair as that was, managed to achieve its political objectives by this point, so why are we still stuck in Libya with no end in sight?

Such questions serve the purpose of refocusing the public’s attention, however briefly, away from gripping tales of errant tweets and back onto strategic matters. But just as the public shrugged off the artificial milestones of body counts in Iraq that were heralded in the media — the moment when the Iraq casualties exceeded Desert Storm casualties, the moment when Iraq casualties crossed the 1000 threshold, etc. — the public is not likely to reflexively rule that time has been called on this particular adventure just because it is lasting longer than another war it loosely resembles.

And yet the gradual cumulation of these thresholds, and the awkward questions they raise, could have an effect. Obama and Qaddafi are racing different clocks. My best guess is that Obama has more time on his than Qaddafi has on his, but it may be a closer race than either realizes.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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