Obama Leaves Congress And American People Out Of Libya Debate

The American people continue to pay the price for President Obama’s decision to flout clear Constitutional and legislative intent in launching an expensive and ill-advised war against Libya without seeking formal Congressional authorization.

I was critical of the President’s go-it-alone attitude well before the first U.S. missiles and planes attacked targets on Libyan territory. On March 7, 2011, I called on him to seek a formal declaration of war from the Congress for any military action in Libya, as specified in Article I of the Constitution.

The President refused, and instead of consulting closely with America’s elected representatives, his administration conducted intense, behind-the-scenes negotiations at the United Nations in New York. This opaque process produced a March 17 U.N. resolution which went far beyond a simple no-fly zone that the President’s representatives had been talking about–and which the Pentagon had publicly advised against–to authorize “all necessary measures” short of ground troops.

Despite claims that this was just to protect civilians, it clearly put the U.S. on one side of a civil war when we know very little about the side we’re supporting. President Obama, contrary to the clear language of the U.N. resolution, said America’s goal in the conflict was the removal from power of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. This leaves the American people unsure just what our troops are fighting for.

President Obama has also failed to adhere to the provisions of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires the President to seek formal Congressional authorization to keep troops in a conflict beyond 60 days. Either a declaration of war or a War Powers authorization would have offered the American people a robust and open debate about the aims, costs and consequences of our involvement in Libya.

Instead, the American people are left with no clear understanding of the strategic rationale for this conflict, the ultimate scope of the mission, the costs–now running at $2 million a day–they are expected to bear, what other priorities are being sacrificed, or their future obligations for rebuilding the country. This is particularly irresponsible when Congress is struggling to reign in our massive budget deficit and create badly-needed jobs.

Even members of the President’s own party have rebelled at this exercise in presidential over-reach. Recently, a number of Democrats in the House joined with Republicans in a non-binding resolution rebuking the President for failing to consult sufficiently with Congress. They also demanded answers to a list of important questions about the war, which appears stalemated as some of our allies run out of bombs.

Belatedly, Democrats in the Senate tried to finesse this repeated failure to engage Congress by promoting a non-binding, Senate-only resolution that would express general support for limited military action in Libya. But these “sense of the Senate” resolutions are most often used to commemorate non-controversial events–such as last month’s resolution celebrating National Train Day–not to authorize a war.

Proponents would try to soothe doubts about the proposed resolution by arguing that it has no force of law. However, if passed, the administration would inevitably use it to claim Congress has endorsed the war. The Senate should not tolerate this bait-and-switch tactic by the President and his allies.

The President instead should fulfill his Constitutional and legal obligations and seek a formal, binding authorization from both Houses of Congress. This would, finally, force the President to present his case in detail to the American public, allow for a robust debate to examine that case, and establish the limits of political support for committing American blood and treasure in Libya.

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