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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.”