Congress, more specifically the House of Representatives, and most particularly the GOP members of the House, have twisted their panties over the propriety, or, at least, the legality of the ongoing American operation in Libya. The knot in the elephant's knickers is, of course, the War Powers Act. The Republicans have been huffing and puffing mightily over the Obama administration's purported failure to abide by the requirements of this act, an act, it deserves reminding ourselves, the Republicans have often and loudly decried as unconstitutional.
The Nice Young Man From Chicago in no way helped his position when he declared that the US was not engaged in "hostilities" as such might be construed in the context of the War Powers Resolution. This was an utterly preposterous notion which could only have been conceived by an academic with a potent lust for power. The president took an unworthy stance. By so doing he insulted the intelligence not only of the House Republicans but of Americans generally. As an example of legal pettifoggery, the presidential assertion was on a par with the similar legalistic parsing engaged in by Bill Clinton to prove that getting one's knob polished in the environs of the Oval was not engaging in sexual activity.
Now the hypocrites in Congress are locked in a face off with the hypocrite in the Oval. Regardless of which prevails in this imitation mano a mano exercise, the loser will be the United States. What is at stake in this affray is the ability of the US to operate effectively on the global stage in forthcoming years.
The bent-out-of-shape Republicans in the House along with their liberal Democratic colleagues are seeking not simply the humiliation of Obama or the further clipping of the imperial presidency's extensive wingspan or seeking to economize in parlous financial times but rather the forcing of a false choice between an isolationist stance on the part of the US or the continuation of "wars of choice' as defined by the president.
The Republican "deficit hawks" along with their very strange bedfellows, progressive Democrats, are forcing a clear and ongoing limitation on the ability of presidents to wage what has been called "wars of choice." The House leadership as well as most of the current Republican contenders for the Oval have been channeling the ghost of Robert Taft, the "Mr Republican" of sixty and more years ago. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio defined more than any other single man the concept of isolationism. More than other noted congressional proponents of this philosophy of total withdrawal from the political challenges of the world, Taft opposed any and all foreign "entanglements" and "adventures." In support of his position he advanced economic arguments as well as contending without end that not only would our overseas activities end in failure, they would produce more enemies than friends.
The soi dissant conservatives on the Red side of the aisle have been making the same Taft type contentions. Our overseas adventures whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or Libya have ended in failure or will do so unless wound down speedily and completely. Our overseas adventures have made us far more enemies than they have created friends. And, certainly neither last nor least, our overseas adventures have been far too costly and can no longer be afforded.
The particular species of overseas adventure which has reigned supreme in the narratives of both progressive Democrat and deficit hawk Republican has been that of "wars of choice." This is a fine term. It gives the clear impression that presidents of both parties search the world from time to time looking for a war in which to involve ourselves. This is a specious notion but like all truly preposterous ideas it contains a small but critical measure of truth.
Considering all of the military interventions in which the US has participated since the Reagan administration there have been some which were clearly optional in the sense the US had no critical national interests at stake in the conflict. George H.W. Bush's humanitarian intervention in Somalia rests in the "optional" category. So does his adventure in regime change, Operation Just Cause in Panama. But the US response to the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait is of the "mandatory" sort. Key US national and strategic interests were in play in that war.
Bill Clinton's expansion of the Somalian operation fell in the "war of choice" column. The same is true with respect to the American operations in former Yugoslavia. The US had no bull in the herd in Somalia. The bloody implosion of what had once been the totally artificial state of Yugoslavia was of concern to Europe but not to the US, pace the recently deceased Larry Eagleburger.
The invasion of Afghanistan, if that use of force had been confined to the original mission statement, was mandatory, a justifiable exercise in retaliation to an attack on the US. However, George W.'s invasion of Iraq fell clearly in the "war of choice" category. It was an ideologically driven "build it and they will come" sort which produced if not a debacle certainly a bloody and expensive tragedy for both Americans and Iraqis, people who will be dealing with the aftershocks for decades if not generations to come.
The ideologically propelled "mission leap" in Afghanistan along with the "war of choice" in Iraq are the ghosts at the political banquet now being served over Libya. There is a delicious irony at the banquet. That irony resides in the main course of the meal--the War Powers Resolution.
The War Powers Resolution was passed by the Democratic Party controlled Congress as a reaction to the Vietnam War which was seen by the Democrats as having been a "war of choice" waged by imperial presidents. The Democrats who so loudly demanded limitations be placed on the president's capacity to wage war cheerfully ignored reality as they voted. The American entrance into the Vietnamese war was seen by both the Democratic presidents (JKF and LBJ) as well as the Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress to have been "mandatory."
If anything the documents show the congressional Democrats were far more willing and eager to go to war then either JFK or LBJ. The Democrats along with the Republicans understood our commitment to the South Vietnamese to be central to our guarantee of the global status quo during a very frigid period of the cold war. Support for the introduction of combat troops, the commencement of the air war against North Vietnam, and the central decision to escalate our forces in country were all monolithically supported by the Democratic Party. It was only after the war seemed (incorrectly) to have devolved to an unwinnable stalemate during the administration of the detested Richard Nixon that sentiment on the Blue side shifted so as to produce the War Powers Resolution.
Now the Republicans motivated by their political calculus are willing to invoke both the War Powers Resolution and the power of the purse to limit or end the Obama policy in Libya. Standing in opposition to the efforts of the deficit hawk Republicans and progressive Democrats to end the minimal American presence in the Libyan "war of choice" is the neocon outfit, The Foreign Policy Initiative," which authored an open letter to the House leadership imploring a rejection of the proposed strictures and urging an expansion of US efforts in the Libyan Affair.
The neocons are no more correct than are the wing clippers in the House. The answer to the problems of "wars of choice" is to be found in a more effective means of determining the nature of US interests in play in any given potential area of intervention. The critical difference between "mandatory" and "optional" wars is to be found in the answer to one question: What key national and strategic interests are to be served and to what degree by this proposed intervention?
Had this question been both posed and accurately answered, the US would have not invaded Iraq. It would not have expanded the mission in Afghanistan to include the impossibility of nation-building. And, the US would have sat out Libya as it did conflicts even more bloody elsewhere in Africa. The "wars of choice" all share a common feature--they were driven by ideology. True, the ideology might have been clothed attractively in American values, norms, aspirations. The motive might have been expressed in pleasant words regarding democracy, transparency, or the evil nature of repressive regimes. The matter of refugees might have been adduced in support as well as concealment of the underlying ideological imperatives.
There is only one reason to go to war--when there is no realistic alternative way by which a better state of peace as defined by American national and strategic interests exists. There is one large reason not to go to war--when the motive is one of ideology, of belief, of personal or collective vision.
How to parse between the two is the only effective way to assure the US does not waste blood and treasure in pursuit of impossible dreams. And, parsing between the two is the only way to assure that when war in the national interest is necessary, we have the way and will to do so with success.
Of course, Congress being what it is, there is no chance the Deep Thinkers in that body any more than the Great Strategists in and near the Oval will consider this matter, the only matter which genuinely counts for more than a few votes more or less in some future election.