By what authority did Obama start military action in Libya?

‘Today I authorized the Armed Forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians.”

That’s how President Barack Obama opened Saturday’s briefing announcing his decision to launch a war in North Africa.

Let’s just say several key phrases here are, er, debatable:

An “international effort”: “We did not lead this,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters Saturday. But we are leading it. There are 11 U.S. warships in the region, and just one each from the French and Brits.

The entire operation is under U.S. command, and we’ve launched 110 Tomahawk missiles so far at more than $500,000 a pop. As usual, Uncle Sucker is doing the heavy lifting, and the “glory” — or, more likely, the blame — will be ours.

“Limited military action”: Remember Gen. Colin Powell’s prudent guidelines for use of force, which he outlined in 1991 during his stint as President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser?

Per Powell, before risking American blood and treasure, responsible leaders should identify, at a minimum, a vital national security interest, a clear and achievable military mission and a sound exit strategy.

That was so ’90s. Today, we seem determined to keep proving Powell’s 2003 “Pottery Barn rule”: “You break it, you bought it.”

Obama is adamant that “we will not deploy any U.S. troops on the ground.” Yet in a Senate hearing last week, the Air Force chief of staff told Sen. John McCain that “a no-fly zone, sir, would not be sufficient” to turn the tide. Indeed, the result could be a bloodier, more protracted civil war.

What then? How will that promote the president’s announced goal of “protect[ing] Libyan civilians”? Has anyone thought this through?

“I authorized”: Most objectionable, of course, is Obama’s “decider”-like insistence that he alone has the power to commit the nation to a nondefensive war. Under the Constitution, this isn’t one man’s call — and Obama, a former constitutional law professor, knows that.

On the campaign trail in late 2007, he told reporter Charlie Savage that the president lacks the constitutional power “to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

Then-candidate Clinton said much the same: “The Constitution requires Congress to authorize war.”

It is “a great principle in free government,” James Madison wrote in 1793, “that those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges, [of] whether a war ought to be commenced.” The Constitution leaves that question to Congress.

Not that Congress is very interested. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced his support for the airstrikes, but groused that Obama “must do a better job of briefing members of Congress” about the wars he starts.

We’ve heard a lot of chatter recently about whether the president looked “weak” by hesitating to jump into the Libyan civil war. Do we have to consider him “strong” now that he’s caved in to the hawks and gotten us entangled?

In fact, it takes real strength of character for a president to exercise restraint — to uphold his constitutional oath of office and refrain from waging war when war isn’t necessary.  

Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”

Op EdsOpinionSan FranciscoUS

Just Posted

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — seen in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday — touted Congressional Democrats’ infrastructure bill in San Francisco on Thursday. (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times)
Pelosi touts infrastructure bill as it nears finish line

Climate change, social safety net among major priorities of Democrats’ 10-year funding measure

A Giants fans hangs his head in disbelief after the Dodgers won the NLDS in a controversial finish to a tight Game 5. (Chris Victorio/Special to The Examiner)
Giants dream season ends at the hands of the Dodgers, 2-1

A masterful game comes down to the bottom of the ninth, and San Francisco came up short

<strong>Workers with Urban Alchemy and the Downtown Streets Team clean at Seventh and Market streets on Oct. 12. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins> </strong>
Why is it so hard to keep San Francisco’s streets clean?

Some blame bureaucracy, others say it’s the residents’ fault

A lion from Cambodia at the Asian Art Museum, which was acquired from a private collector and dates back to between 1150 and 1225, is one of two pieces identified as a stolen artifact in the leaked Pandora Papers. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
Asian Art Museum reckons with Cambodian antiquities of disputed provenance

Pandora Papers revelations accelerate culture shift at museums near and far

Tech workers at Flexport’s Market Street headquarters have worked to find data solutions to supply-chain challenges. (Courtesy Flexport)
How San Francisco tech companies are addressing the global supply chain crisis

Startups bring data solutions to broken shipping industry

Most Read