Congress Debates the Libya War

Better late than never.

The House of Representatives today debated two different resolutions purportedly aimed at forcing the Obama administration to comply with its statutory and constitutional obligations to secure formal authorization for the ongoing military campaign in Libya.

I say “purportedly” because it seems quite clear that the real intent of House Speaker John Boehner’s resolution was to lure away a sufficient number of Republicans who otherwise would have been inclined to vote for Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-OH) measure. Whereas the Kucinich resolution would have compelled the Obama administration to withdraw from all military operations in Libya within the next 15 days, Boehner’s resolution bars the administration from deploying ground troops, but allows current operations to continue.  The resolution stipulates that the administration must explain what the U.S. military is actually doing, and calls on the president to justify his decision to launch the campaign without first obtaining congressional approval.  Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern suggested that a strongly worded press release would have the same effect. Others noted that similar language has already been written into the defense authorization passed late last week.

Boehner’s gambit worked, for now. His resolution carried, with overwhelming GOP support. The House failed to adopt the Kucinich measure, although more Republicans than Democrats voted for the bill.  The detailed vote totals for both measures signal a growing willingness on the part of even many Republicans to question the country’s many wars.

Indeed, many were prepared to go beyond merely voting for the measure; about a dozen House Republicans (including resolution co-sponsor Dan Burton of Indiana) spoke out in favor of the Kucinich resolution. Many of these House members seemed quite eager to reassert their authority and to defend the principle of legislative control over the war power, even if that meant allying with one of the most liberal members of Congress.

At one level, it shouldn’t surprise that a number of Republicans voted for the Kucinich resolution. The war is unpopular with the American people, and their elected representatives are reflecting that sentiment. A number of speakers this morning made this point explicitly. But leaving public opinion aside, and conceding that the constitutional question has been practically rendered moot by the parade of presidents and Congresses who have summarily ignored its clear intent, there are ample opportunities for questioning the Libya war on strategic grounds, and not many solid arguments that prove the war to be serving a vital national interest.

The least compelling argument in support of the Libya intervention, in my mind, is the one offered up by Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this week, and repeated several times  in the floor debate this morning: we need to stay in Libya, not because it is in our national interest to do so (it isn’t), and not because the Libyan civil war poses a clear and present danger to U.S. security (it doesn’t); rather, we are waging a war in Libya because our allies want us to. To leave them holding the bag, as Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) explained this morning, would betray a sacred trust. Boehner echoed those sentiments, warning against a vote for the Kucinich resolution because our NATO allies have stood by us in Afghanistan, and we owe it to them to do the same in Libya.

I discussed why this rationale is particularly flimsy over at TNI’s The Skeptics earlier today, and it is featured in a just-released Cato video. As the ever-quotable Ben Friedman explains, “we should have allies for war, not wars for allies.” Meanwhile, Justin Logan notes the absurdity of U.S. taxpayers borrowing money from China to buy precision-guided munitions for Europeans to drop on Libya. If that sounds like a Rube Goldberg foreign policy, it is.