Commentary

Illegal War? Congress Doesn’t Care

Remember when President Obama assured us his Libyan adventure would be over in “days, not weeks”? To employ a Clinton-era euphemism, “That statement is no longer operative.” (Translation: I lied.)

On Friday the 60-day clock ran out, leaving Obama in clear violation of the War Powers Resolution, passed in 1973 to “fulfill the intent of the framers of the Constitution … [and] insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”

Instead of withdrawing U.S. forces, the president sent a letter to congressional leaders insisting — bizarrely — that drone attacks and “suppression and destruction of air defenses” don’t qualify as “hostilities” under the resolution.

“The U.S. role is one of support,” an Obama adviser told ABC News, “and the kinetic pieces of that are intermittent.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates couldn’t even keep a straight face while trying to sell the “kinetic military action” line to Katie Couric on 60 Minutes recently, when she asked him, “Are we at war with Libya?”

Six Republican senators, led by Kentucky’s Rand Paul, sent the president a letter Friday, challenging him to comply with the War Powers Resolution. But they won’t get much help from their colleagues. There’s no Senate action scheduled on the WPR, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., says it’s because “we’re deferring to NATO.” Who elected them?

With Congress AWOL, it’s not clear what recourse is left to those who oppose unconstitutional wars. Perhaps what remains of the “peace” movement can update the old John Lennon anthem: “All we are saying is give static military activity a chance …”

Meanwhile, as the Senate dithered, the House moved toward granting the president sweeping new war powers.

The defense spending bill that recently cleared the House Armed Services Committee contains a new, post-bin Laden Authorization for Use of Military Force. This authorization is even broader than its post-Sept. 11 predecessor, whose language was stretched by the Bush administration to justify warrantless surveillance and holding U.S. citizens without charges. Even so, the proposed replacement got only a few minutes of post-midnight debate.

The first authorization at least contained a link to the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. The new authorization empowers the president to go to war with any nation he determines is aiding al Qaeda, the Taliban, or “associated forces.” How far can that language be stretched? Maybe far enough for Congress to finally get this war powers hassle off its plate permanently.

One thing is clear, you can’t blame our burgeoning “imperial presidency” solely on aggressive, power-hungry presidents. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explained in his book of that name, the presidency’s transformation from limited, constitutional office to Supreme Warlord of the Earth has been “as much a matter of congressional abdication as of presidential usurpation.”

In fact, the last time I can remember Congress roused to righteous indignation about threats to the separation of powers was in May 2006, when the FBI searched then-Rep. William Jefferson’s congressional office in a bribery investigation. (They’d previously found $90,000 in cash in Jefferson’s freezer at home.)

The raid on Jefferson’s office was the rare event that got then-Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Ill., and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., singing from the same hymnbook about “constitutional principles … designed to protect the Congress and the American people from abuses of power.”

It would be nice to see similar bipartisan outrage from Congress today about “abuses of power” like, say … illegal wars.

But it seems that sort of thing doesn’t hit as close to home.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.