A few observations here on the current turmoil in Libya. President Obama, by first deferring on military action against Gaddafi then belatedly participating in the bombing attacks, has managed to find himself under intense criticism from both the Left and the Right at home. Here’s my take: the oath the President took a couple of years ago binds him to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. In turn, the preamble of the Constitution notes that it was framed with goals including to “insure domestic Tranquility” and to “provide for the common defence.” Note the bolded words. Gaddafi is not now a threat to our domestic tranquility; indeed, if he’s succeeded by a regime controlled by al-Qaeda, his departure will pose more danger to Americans than his presence. And while I am not a military scholar, it sure seems to me that the bombing missions underway now are not defensive but offensive.
As such, a President seeking to wage a war offensively is enjoined to, at a very minimum, consult with the Congress. My friends on the Left conveniently forget that our previous President did indeed gain approval from Congress before launching his adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, as ill-advised as they may have been. A United Nations resolution alone binds no American statesman to action; he is bound by the laws and Constitution he has sworn to uphold.
Now there is controversy on the Right — between what some might, with a certain imprecision, call neoconservatives and paleoconservatives — about exactly what power the President has to wage war without legislative review. One current squabble features two thinkers I follow and admire, talk radio powerhouse Mark Levin and Professor Thomas Woods, whose arguments are linked here. Because the actual ink on the Constitutional parchment is somewhat vague when applied to specific instances like this one, each man has a leg to stand on. I personally am more persuaded by Woods’s argument that the president does not have the power to initiate hostilities without consulting Congress. He backs this up with multiple pieces of evidence from the Federalist papers and letters written by the Founders. Perhaps most tellingly, Woods enlists none other than our very first Chief Executive, who as presider over the meetings which produced the Constitution surely knew its intent:
In conformity with this understanding, George Washington’s operations on his own authority against the Indians were confined to defensive measures, conscious as he was that the approval of Congress would be necessary for anything further. “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress,” he said, “therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”
Bottom line: the present military action runs counter to both the letter and the spirit of the United States’ founding documents and thus is worthy of opposition. It is not our responsibility to rescue Libyans from oppression, so long as that sovereign nation does not oppress us. Even if we felt Gaddafi’s overthrow conferred some geopolitical benefit to our interests (e.g., the Libyan oil on which the British and French rely), such a misguided attempt at nation building will have as much trouble growing in north African soil as we have found it to be in the Middle East. Do I think the President should be impeached over this, as some zealots have suggested? No. If the Constitution, as ratified, were more explicit on the boundaries of the President and Congress in the business of war, maybe a case could be made. But since we have to rely on inference and supporting documents that don’t hold the force of law, it seems POTUS has found yet another way to do what he sees fit, regardless of the misgivings of many who elected him.
Does this set Obama up for a fall in 2012? So far, it does not look likely. None of the incipient GOP contenders seem to be catching on. Importantly, with one exception they do not grasp the opportunity Obama has presented them. And as for Ron Paul, he has had his chances and failed to connect; he needs to get off the stage and let a real paleoconservative step forward. The concern is, will that happen in time?