Ron Radosh

Left and Right and the Confusion over War in Libya

Here are two quotes from major American politicians, both senators.  I offer you a quiz.  Two different U.S. Senators are responsible for the quotes. Which Senator said the first quote? Which Senator said the last two?

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.


I do not agree that under our Constitution the Executive can bring about a state of war without usurpation. He may have the power to get us into war, but he certainly has not the right. The mere fact that his power cannot be disputed in war does not mean that it is constitutional. …I don’t propose to acquiesce in any policy leading directly to war unless it is approved by Congress.

And at another time, this same above senator said the following:

The president had brought “that war about without consulting Congress and without congressional approval…[the fighting was] a complete usurpation by the President of the authority to use the Armed Forces of this country.”

The first, as you probably guessed, is from Barack Obama in 2007. The second quotation is from long ago, from “Mr. Republican,” as Senator Robert A. Taft was called in the 1940s and 1950s. The first Taft quote is from 1941, the second is from his response to Truman’s entry of the U.S. into the Korean War, in 1950. Obama was opposing a Republican’s war; Taft was opposing one led in both cases by a Democrat. Invoking the Constitution, it seems, has its uses by both sides when it seems convenient to invoke it.

You might have guessed, if you have been reading conservative websites, that the second might be from Andrew McCarthy at NRO, if I had not said it was from a politician. McCarthy wrote a few days ago that American combat operations cannot be validated by a vote from the UN Security Council, since “our Constitution vests Congress with the power to declare war. That authority cannot be delegated to an international tribunal that lacks political accountability to the American people.” He added that while the president can authorize the use of our armed forces against an “actual or imminent strike against the United States,” that is not meant as a blank check. Thus “Congress must weigh in and either endorse or put a stop to presidential war-making.”

Thus, in our present day, both Left and Right are thoroughly divided and confused over the nature and meaning of our actions in Libya. Writing today at The New Republic, journalist John B. Judis lays out why he thinks today “the Left Got Libya Wrong.” Recalling how in 1990 all of his friends on the Left opposed the U.S. action after Iraq invaded Kuwait as leading “to another Vietnam” and nothing less than an example of “U.S. imperialism,” Judis expresses dismay that, once again, those on the Left are having a similar response.

Siding instead with the liberal interventionists at his own magazine, Judis talks about the dangers of allowing Gaddafi to retain control of a key oil supply, to sow discord in the region, to stop in its tracks democratization in the Arab world should he win. Judis, like others who condemned Obama for acting too slowly, thinks the president should have stepped in earlier, instead of being “shamed into taking leadership.” He writes:

Obama did the absolutely worst thing — he called for Quadaffi’s ouster, but did not do anything about it, and discouraged others from doing so.

Judis, like other interventionists, hopes that the U.S. will knock out Gaddafi’s troops and help lead the way to a rebel victory. “They have little choice,” he writes,  “but to seek Qadaffi’s ouster.”  He hopes, without providing much evidence that this will be the case, that Libya will “become part of an experiment in democratization that is now taking place across North Africa.”

As for whether or not Obama should have gone to Congress, Judis says: “I am not sure there was time for a full-scale debate.” Hence, he lines up with what the Left used to call the power of the imperial presidency, the bane of liberals like the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

And here is further grounds for confusion. Fred Siegel, one of the most astute of political commentators, e-mailed me his take: “I can see why this is in Europe’s national interest; they face both a refugee and an oil supply crisis. But what I can’t see so far is why this in America’s national interest. That said, now that we’re in we need to win — assuming we know what that means.”

On the latter point, Anne Applebaum points out today that the U.S. should keep expectations low, and not make a big point about “winning.” She writes,We have intervened and, for better or for worse, we will now be partly responsible for the outcome — and one of the ways in which we can promote a better outcome is to make sure we keep expectations low.” She concludes that Obama should “offer no encouragement to anyone who expects us to go in, gung-ho for democracy, and win the war.” Which, of course, is precisely what the rebels want, and expect the United States to accomplish on their behalf.

On the non-interventionist side is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, the brilliant analyst and former New York Times columnist Leslie H. Gelb, who goes so far as to call the Libyan imbroglio a “manufactured crisis.” Gelb sees no states having any vital interests at stake in Libya at all. And he sees a coalition of “neoconservatives and liberal humanitarian interventionists”; an alliance, if you will, of Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard and John B. Judis at The New Republic — both offering similar arguments for intervention-working together to trap “another U.S. president into acting as if the opposite were true.”

He calls them a “terrible duo” raising phony issues of “slaughter” and “genocide,” which he thinks makes the media go crazy. We have no coherent goal, he agrees, simply because there is no central interest in Libya existing. Yes, Gelb says, many want to do good. Gelb fears that interventionists who use Judis’s argument — that we act immediately and have no time to deliberate in Congress —  are revealing a “kneejerk reaction” in which they see blood and insist the U.S. step in and take charge.

Gelb is right about one thing. A no-fly zone by itself will not do the job. To save lives, Gaddafi’s ground forces have to be hit and destroyed; there is no alternative. That means more than a limited operation the president has proclaimed, and some would argue it will lead inevitably to advisors on the ground, troops to help direct the rebels, and even — if the rebels prove incapable of acting on their own — joining in the fighting.

Today, I watched the first rate NBC news correspondent Richard Engel report from the front lines of the would-be rebel advance. Engel reported that the rebels are incompetent, ill-equipped, and complete amateurs, and that many cannot even load, not to speak of shoot, any kind of gun. He noted that as he accompanied them on an advance, they came upon a small group of Gaddafi’s loyal troops. What did they do? Immediately retreat rather than fight. And this is supposed to have been an advance towards Tripoli. Engel added that the rebels with whom he has spoken expect the U.S. to do the job for them — that is, to eliminate Gaddafi, defeat him, and hand power over to them.

What Gelb fears is that the U.S. strategy is to talk big and hope others do the work. The Arabs say “you do it,” notes Gelb, but he writes that “it is no surprise that those Arabs are nowhere to be found when it comes to translating their heroic rhetoric into action.”  Already they are backing away, because they found the no-fly-zone led to some civilian deaths. That is like saying “I demand that we fight back” but then arguing that “we can’t use any guns; they’re too dangerous.”

On the other hand, Gelb’s colleague at Tina Brown and company, British historian Niall Ferguson, argues that Obama is “a president without a strategy,” something with which almost all sides agree upon. He is on target when he notes the following:

Whatever the wording of the United Nations Security Council resolution, the United States is now at war with the Libyan government, and the aim of this war is the overthrow of Gaddafi. In the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “If you don’t get him out and if you don’t support the opposition and he stays in power, there’s no telling what he will do.” She doubtless remembers more clearly than Obama what happened in Bosnia, when her husband took years to approve effective military intervention. Had she been president, my guess is we’d have taken swifter action. But in this play, she’s Lady Macbeth, urging Obama to get tough.

Ferguson also thinks this should have been done from the start, not late in the game when Gaddafi already gained the upper hand. He correctly fears that it might be too late. And he raises the fear that those rebels we are backing could turn out to be our enemies, radical Islamic supporters so popular in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.  Ferguson notes accurately that coming from all the loudspeakers were not cries of “God Bless America” but rather, “Allahu Akbar.”  Instead of the kind of Western democratization John Judis thinks will occur, Ferguson raises the prospect of a restoration of the old regime, a protracted civil war, an Islamist takeover, a Sunni-Shiite conflict or a combination of all of these.

So we are at war in Libya, and despite the protestations of a limited affair with only air forays protecting a no-flight zone, escalation lies on the horizon. Obama now uses arguments he vehemently protested when made by George W. Bush, as Mona Charen points out. Why are the reasons he raised as objections to ousting Saddam Hussein no longer relevant when it comes to Gaddafi, even though, as detestable as he is, he is far less of a threat to the United States than Saddam was?  We are in the midst of what Victor Davis Hanson correctly argues is “a paradox, resulting from the president’s belatedly announcing that Moammar Qaddafi must go, using military force against him, and then denying that our objective is to see him leave.”

So on all sides, Right and Left are confused, and spokesmen find themselves with unusual allies. The other day Ralph Nader cited as proof of the unconstitutionality of the Libyan war the views of Judge Napolitano, Fox News’s ultra-libertarian analyst who also believes that Pearl Harbor was a conspiracy by FDR to get us into war through the back door. And Dennis Kucinich calls for Obama’s impeachment, something, I suspect, that in a short time, more than a few anti-interventionist Republicans like Ron Paul will join right in on.

These are indeed uneasy times. With an incompetent president far out of his league, we are left here without leadership, in the midst of a war which, once having started, would be a disaster for us to lose. We have few alternatives that are any good. As Hanson so aptly writes:

And as far as conservatives go, if they supported Bush’s invading Iraq and stayed with him for seven years to foster constitutional government, surely they should rally behind Obama’s far more limited warmaking, even if Obama — in the fashion of Bill Clinton, but unlike both the elder and the younger Bush — never went to the House and Senate to get authorization for military action.

No one can predict what the future holds. I fear, however, that the outcome will not be good. I hope that I’m wrong.