Friday, June 3, 2011

The House Draws A (Very Faint) Line In The Sand

Today the House made a small first step toward recapturing some authority as to the deployment of US forces into combat.  It passed the milder of two alternative resolutions relating to President Obama's use of force in Libya and his concomitant apparent violation of the War Powers Act.

The resolution, which has no practical impact given a SCOTUS holding that resolutions lack the force of law as the president has no opportunity to exercise his veto, still does have symbolic effect.  And, as history shows quite clearly, politics can be all about symbolism.

Should the White House deign to respond to the resolution's requirements, the task isn't particularly onerous.  All the Deep Thinkers surrounding the Oval need do is explain what its intentions in Libya are, what the cost of attaining these has been to date, and some other ancillary matters.  There is no demand that an assessment of probable success be offered.  However, the resolution does seek an explanation as to why the president did not abide by the sixty day provision of the War Powers Act.

It would be nice to see a unitary, internally consistent statement as to the goals of the operation in Libya.  To date there have been two not necessarily congruent goals attributed to the NATO run air campaign.  On the "official" level, it is to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe by protecting innocent civilian lives.  On the "unofficial" level of presidential declaratory policy, the goal is the removal of Gaddafi from power.  While it is possible to merge the two, the logic is less than direct.

The cost to date is, as wars go, quite modest.  But even modest expenditures must be justified given the current parlous state of federal finances.  Beyond that, it would be nice to see an estimate of consequential expenses such as the reduction in air frame and powerplant hours.  Aircraft and their systems age, and it is not desirable to push them into mechanical senescence absent good reason.

Most interesting of all would be the Obama and company's reasoning behind its ignoring the requirements of the War Powers Act.  While no administration has cottoned to the Act, all have more or less gone along with its spirit--the involvement of congress--by seeking and receiving some sort of support, usually in the form of a joint resolution authorizing the proposed action in broad and necessarily vague terms.  The Obama "team" has not followed the custom.

One reason given by the Deep Thinkers is rather preposterous on the face.  It has been held that the use of air delivered ordnance alone does not cross the line triggering the War Powers Act.   It has also been argued that since all the US has been doing since the first few days has been supporting combat forces supplied by other NATO members, the threshold has not been transgressed.  This is reasoning on a par with that of President Clinton who held, in effect, that getting one's knob polished in an anteroom to the Oval was not having sex.

The most important implication of this rare act of congressional courage is by passing this resolution the body is trying to get some measure of dual control with the president in the making of war.  This is a very good thing and very long overdue.

Not that congress would necessarily provide an effective check on a president's desire to flex a little bit of military muscle.  Both House and Senate have demonstrated the reflexes of a lap dog when past presidents have sought congressional buy-in on a proposed adventure in regime change.  The politics of partisan advantage will and have taken precedence over any reasoned discussion of just what national interest might be at stake or what might constitute the better state of peace expected to emerge when the shooting and killing stop.  The resolution authorizing use of force in the wake of 9/11 went through with a whoop and a hollar and an absence of mature consideration as to what was at stake or how long and difficult the "war on terror" might be.  The same was true only more so with regard to the invasion of Iraq, arguably the greatest foreign policy blunder since Wilson took the US into World War I.

There is a very real reason why congress should be involved up to and including passing a declaration of war before the US mounts an intervention.  All interventions are both contingent and asymmetrical in nature.  All are contests of political will in which the opponent has the greater since he has the most at stake.  By fully involving congress in the decision to go to war, the opponent is put on notice that the war is supported by the totality of the American political structure and is not simply the personal exercise of pique and power by the president.

Meaningful congressional action at the start of a war will go a very long way to toughening the American political backbone.  It would make the process of turning the war to partisan advantage far more difficult.  It would go a great distance to assuring escalating support should demands of the war increase, as they always do.

Congressional involvement of a meaningful as opposed to a pro forma sort would also put a check on overly quick or robust presidential action particularly if neither party dominated both branches of government.  It might even make an administration think through what it hoped would come as a result of the proposed war in support of policy.

Since the vast majority of wars will continue to be limited ones in support of policy.  (Real, existential, total wars will probably come upon us too rapidly for any consultation until after the use of force has been commenced.)  Consultation with congress, the need for congressional approval might combine to produce both a better policy and a better understanding of the limits of military employment.  This would be a very, very fine change from past practice.

The practice of treating congress as an equal in the decision making process might even, to get a bit utopian, have the effect of educating the more lofty thinking liberals in House and Senate who believe that diplomacy is some sort of totem or fetish to be waved whenever a threat looms.  They might even come to realize that there are situations in the world where the best diplomat carries an M4 carbine or is at the controls of an F16 or a Predator.

The point of the exercise, however, is not education of warm hearted liberals or clipping the wings of overly imperial presidents but providing a context best suited for assuring the level of political will without which no intervention can have any hope of succeeding.  To be united means to win.  And, to be united requires that congress be a full and effective partner with the president.

War is not (or should not be) partisan in nature.  Neither is it one belonging to one branch of government.  It is to be hoped that this mild, almost apologetic, resolution is the first indicator of congress belatedly becoming aware of reality.  Well, the Geek did write "hoped."  That's all one can do.

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