Obama Pulls A Bush On Libya Vote

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For a man whose sobriety, intellectual rigor, and oratory skills have often impressed supporters and opponents alike, U.S. President Barack Obama certainly seems comfortable in his current re-enactment of Bill Clinton’s infamous Lewinsky-era attempts to spin reality with heavy-handed semantic ploys. With Clinton, the issue of whether he had “sexual relations with that women” (and possibly fibbed about it under oath) came down to agonizing verbal contortions about “how you define ‘alone”, and “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”. With Obama, refusal to seek approval from Congress to extend the involvement of armed American military forces in the Libyan conflict is being justified on the logic the violent, deadly NATO-led operation looking to facilitate regime change isn’t really a war. If America’s participation in the violence taking place in and above Libya isn’t making war, Obama’s conception of making love must be a wondrous thing indeed.

Less awe-inspiring, however, is Obama’s effort to avoid what would probably be a messy legislative battle to secure an extension on Libya by doing the same thing that he rightly criticized the Bush administration for time and again: using seemingly polite legal, semantic, and security arguments to end-around Congress on decisions the White House knew would probably be blocked otherwise. In doing so, Obama is not only engaging in political hypocrisy as a convenient manner of overcoming a current challenge; he’s also resorting to the kind of Bush administration power-play that Democrats will have a very hard time denouncing when Republicans lose their current aversion to foreign entanglements–and start trying to launch few of their own once they’ve gotten back in command.

As reported yesterday by our always excellent Swampland colleague Jay Newton-Small, the Obama White House is seeking to straight-arm insistence from Congressional leaders that any prolongation of the Libyan operation must be put to a vote by legislators. In making that claim, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle cite the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires U.S. presidents to gain legislative approval to wage war beyond an initial 90-day period (a limit set to expire on Libya soon). The 1973 law was designed to prevent the executive branch of ever again committing forces to open-ended, undeclared wars disguised as other kinds of interventions (Korea, Vietnam), and elsewhere allow Congress to nix any bad White House attempts to lead the U.S. into unfounded, cooked up wars of leisure like, well, Iraq. Call it one feature of America’s checks and balances that (usually) works pretty well–so long as  presidents aren’t trying to pole vault it.

In seeking to deprive lawmakers their vote on extending the Libyan campaign, the Obama White House argues that even if activity in Libya may look a lot like war from the outside—may even be war for loyalists of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the rebels seeking to depose him—it doesn’t actually qualify as war once you define the “is” of U.S. involvement. Basically, Team Obama reasons the United Nations mandate covering the international air force intervention was intended to protect civilians from what looked to be a looming massacre by surging Gaddafi forces—ie. it’s more like humanitarian work or muscular peacekeeping for international forces rather than active, G.I. Joe-type engagement. Meanwhile (the reasoning continues), after the U.S. handed over the lead in the operation to NATO on March 31, American involvement has been mostly been limited to logistical support, intelligence assistance, and drone strikes–leaving the majority of  piloted bombing raids to allies like France and Britain, (who were the most gung-ho on intervening in Libya in the first place). And—the White House adds—apart from its $1 billion-plus cost projected through the summer, the Libyan operation has had no significant affects on U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq—Bush-era wars Obama is happy to define as such. By contrast, the administration argues, in Libya the U.S. military is only playing the role of water boy for the big Libyan bruisers who are really playing this zero-sum game of grid-iron combat.

As noted above, the power-grab by an Obama White House seeking to avoid Congressional push-back (or even smack-down) on Libya marks an embrace of Bush administration tactics by a Democratic leader that seriously increases the likelihood such moves will become a sinister habit among future presidents of both parties. Bush may have set  the precedent; Obama’s move risks establishing it as an integral part of the presidential playbook. It also may have more immediate consequences. As Jay’s post points out, while legal history suggests the White House will be able to turn back court challenges by members of Congress complaining the War Powers Resolution is being violated,  anger the move has sparked among Republicans and Democrats alike may cost Obama politically. The Libyan campaign is unpopular among public opinion, which is also seriously hacked off at seeing another war—or whatever you want to call it—sucking money from shrinking budgets as another period of economic sluggishness looks ready to set in. Seeking to ignore that displeasure by secluding the decision of prolonging the Libyan operation under a dome of presidential prerogative only seems certain to increase bubbling resentment.

With his re-election looming in 2012, Obama can scarcely afford to dismay voters and alienate his own Democratic allies in Congress with objectionable moves on managing the Libyan campaign. To be sure, Libya will be but one item on the checklist determining how people cast ballots next year, but seeing how willing he was to go it alone on Libya, it’s possible Democrats up for election themselves in 2012 will be only too happy to let the President take all responsibility for the economic and employment outlook going into the polls. Spin it as much as he might, there will only be one way to define “winner” in 2012 voting.