An Open Letter to Liberal Supporters of the Libya War

Middle East historian and blogger Juan Cole recently wrote a polemic against progressive U.S. critics of the new U.S. war in Libya. In his polemic, he wrote, "I hope we can have a calm and civilized discussion of the rights and wrongs here."

I strongly agree with Juan that it is important for progressive critics of U.S. foreign policy to try to have a calm and civilized discussion about the issues that have been raised by the U.S. military intervention in Libya. In general, it's important to try to have calm and civilized discussions about all issues of public policy, even when - especially when - the underlying issues are matters of life and death. The alternative is nasty polemics, and a principal effect of nasty polemics is to exclude people from discussion who don't want to engage in nasty polemics. In this way the effect of nasty polemics is anti-democratic; nasty polemics tend to demobilize people and cause them to disengage, when what we need is the opposite: more engagement and more mobilization.

In this particular case, the decision of the Obama Administration to engage the country in a new Middle East war without Congressional authorization represents a long-term threat to the U.S. peace movement, because the U.S. peace movement is engaged in a long struggle to try to influence U.S. policy in the direction of less war, and Congress is a key arena in which the peace movement tries to assert influence over U.S. policy. If you take away power from Congress to determine issues of war and peace, you substantially reduce the power of the U.S. peace movement to influence issues of war and peace. Taking away Congressional war powers is to the peace movement like taking away collective bargaining is to the labor movement: a direct threat to our ability to move our agenda on behalf of our constituents.

There doesn't appear to be any plausible way right now to try to completely undo the fact that the Obama Administration has made this power grab for the war-making power of the Executive Branch, which goes beyond anything that the last Bush Administration did on war powers. Whatever else may be true about them, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 were authorized by Congress. In the case of the Iraq war, there was a vigorous Congressional and public debate before the war took place.

There's a lot to fault about the limits of that debate, but at least there was one. And the arguments that the Bush Administration made - many of them false - in order to get Congressional approval for the war served as benchmarks for future debates over the continuation of the war, when the war and occupation moved far away from the initial justifications for them, as wars and occupations often do. This contributed significantly to efforts to end the Iraq war, which is a key reason that Congressional debate and authorization are important, even when they don't prevent a war from starting. To the extent that the need for Congressional debate and authorization prevents wars from starting, it is mainly through its deterrent effect: if you get to the point where there is a Congressional vote on an authorization, you've probably already lost in the short run. But if Congressional approval is necessary, then the only wars that are going to start are ones that Congress will approve.

But although there's no plausible way right now for Congress to try to completely undo what President Obama has done to Congressional war powers, now that Congress is back in session - the Senate comes back today and the House comes back tomorrow - Congress can try to limit the damage of this precedent, by asserting its own war powers. Congress could, for example, expressly prohibit the introduction of U.S. ground forces into Libya. Congress could establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the conflict, or require explicit authorization beyond a certain time period. Congress could establish a ceiling on how much money the Pentagon can spend on the conflict without further authorization. [You can contact your Representative here.]

This is not, as some would have it, "merely an issue of process." Is the right to challenge the government's ability to arrest and detain you "merely an issue of process?" Of course, it is not. The right to challenge the government's ability to arrest and detain you helps keep innocent people out of jail. The right of Congress to debate and authorize a military intervention before it takes place if the country or its armed forces have not been attacked helps keep us out of unjust wars. Habeas corpus doesn't keep all innocent people out of jail, and the need for Congressional debate and authorization doesn't stop all unjust wars, but if keeping innocent people out of jail is something that you care about, the weakening of habeas corpus is not something that you should take lightly; and if stopping unjust wars is something that you care about, the weakening of Congressional war powers is not something that you should take lightly.

If you still think that the weakening of Congressional war powers is something unimportant to the general public -"inside baseball" - consider this: you've probably received at some time an email from some organization that has asked you to take some action on some issue of war and peace. The last time you were asked to take some action, what action were you asked to take? Probably, the last action you were asked to take was to write or call your representatives in Congress. So, when the Administration acted without Congressional authorization, when it established a precedent that Congress will have less say about when the country goes to war, it was reducing your ability to intervene in U.S. government policy; it was reducing the ability of organizations you support to intervene in U.S. government policy. And the precedent that has been set here, especially if Congress does not take affirmative action to reassert its war powers, is extremely dangerous. If President Obama can engage the country in a war in Libya with a "recess bombing" which has not been authorized by Congress, what's to stop a future President from doing the same thing in Iran? Suppose that some Iranians organize an armed insurrection against the Iranian government. Suppose that the Iranian government moves to suppress the insurrection with force. Suppose the Iranian government appears to be on the verge of putting down the insurrection, and the armed insurgents appeal for outside military assistance. And suppose there that were a Congressional recess coming up. If the Administration waits until the Congressional recess so it can bomb Iran in support of the armed insurrection without Congressional authorization, would that be ok with you?

The claim that the President had to act when Congress was out of session because it was an emergency conveniently ignores the fact that it was it an emergency that was foreseen when Congress was in session. The Security Council debated when Congress was in session. The Arab League debated when Congress was in session. And the U.S. military operation was planned when Congress was in session. Indeed, the same day that the Administration went to the Security Council, it briefed some Members of Congress - while Congress was in session. Moreover, of course, Congress can come back into session anytime. If it was an emergency, Congress could convene.

Every country is different, and every military intervention is different. But there are some patterns here that should trouble us.

One pattern is the invocation of an apparent emergency to short-circuit debate over a U.S military intervention that may turn out to have a much greater cost, duration and scope than people were made aware of at the time of the emergency that was used to sell it. In Iraq, it was Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction: "don't let the smoking gun be a mushroom cloud." In Afghanistan, the emergency was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In Libya, the emergency was the expected Libyan government assault on Benghazi. Note that while in the case of Iraq, the weapons of mass destruction story turned out to be a hoax, in the case of Afghanistan, there really was a terrorist attack on 9/11. But the "emergency" effect was the same. Because it's an emergency - it's always an emergency - there's no time to think, no time to deliberate, no time to debate, no time to evaluate possible alternative courses of action. There's only one possible course of action, and that's already been decided: war. The role assigned to the public by the Administration is just to agree with what's already been decided.

Nine years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is essentially gone from Afghanistan and 100,000 U.S. troops remain; more than a thousand Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed. The authorization of force for the invasion of Afghanistan has been used as the basis for U.S. military intervention in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines, as well as for the indefinite detention facilities at Guantanamo and Baghram. Now that you know what was inside the bag, don't you wish that we had had the opportunity to examine its contents more carefully before we purchased it?

Eight years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there were no weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein has been executed, the Baath Party is illegal in Iraq, thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, the US-installed Iraqi government suppresses demonstrations with force, and we're still there. Don't you wish that we had had more opportunity to examine the contents of this bag before we purchased it?

And now we have a new war. And in this case, we didn't get to examine the bag beforehand at all, or even make a purchase. We've just been informed that the purchase was complete - and here's your bag. And there a lot of unanswered questions. How much is this war going to cost, at a time when many in Washington want to cut nutritional assistance for poor children, rent subsidies for poor families, and Social Security benefits? Now that Libyan government forces have retreated and rebel forces are advancing, are we "protecting civilians," or are we supporting the rebel offensive? If we are intervening in a civil war, shouldn't Congress debate that? If actual effect of our military activity on the ground is to support a rebel offensive to overthrow the Libyan government militarily - regardless of Administration statements that that is not our objective - shouldn't Congress debate that?

What is the exit strategy? Italy has proposed an immediate ceasefire and negotiations to end the violent conflict in Libya, allowing Qaddafi to go into exile. What is the position of the U.S. on the Italian proposal? Does the U.S. support real negotiations to resolve the crisis, or is it the de facto position of the U.S. that the war must continue, with the U.S. de facto supporting the armed rebels' offensive, until the Libyan government is overthrown by force? If it is the de facto U.S. position that the war must continue until the Libyan government is overthrown, what is the U.S. plan for running Libya after the Libyan government is overthrown? Are the armed rebels to become the new Libyan government? Has a determination been made that armed rebels from Benghazi will be accepted by people in Tripoli as their legitimate government? If people in Tripoli organize an armed rebellion against a new government led by people from Benghazi, what will our position on that be? Will we assist the new government in suppressing such a rebellion with force? And what role is envisioned for Western oil companies in a new Libyan government's management of Libya's oil wealth?

It was precisely to try to prevent the situation that we are in now - a new war that Congress has not had the opportunity to debate and authorize - that Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973. Congress was trying to prevent the President from circumventing Congress by creating "facts on the ground." Contrary to what many have claimed, President Obama has not obeyed the War Powers Resolution in the case of the U.S. military intervention in Libya. The War Powers Resolution - which is a law, here's a link to the U.S. code - states explicitly that military force must be used pursuant to Congressional authorization unless the U.S. or its armed forces are attacked:


(c) Presidential executive power as Commander-in-Chief; limitation The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

As a candidate for President in December 2007, former constitutional law professor and then U.S. Senator Barack Obama understood the issue perfectly well. He was asked by the Boston Globe:


In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites -- a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)

And Obama responded:


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.

This was the same Barack Obama who said, also as a candidate for President, in March 2007:


I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president I actually respect the Constitution.

The Administration's assault on the war powers of Congress is extremely grave. It is essential for efforts to prevent wars in the future that Congress take steps to limit this assault on Congressional war powers. You can communicate with your Representative here.

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.


You make some fine points regarding the Constitutional problems inherent in this action. This only adds to a host of other factors that in my view render it dangerous, counterproductive and unwarranted.

However I do feel compelled to point out Mr. Cole's hypocrisy on the issue of civil discourse. I don't see how he can make the following two statements and hope to keep those of us opposed to US/NATO intervention in Libya open to anything else he has to say on the matter:

"If the Left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor, along with large numbers of white collar middle class people."


"The arguments against international intervention are not trivial, but they all did have the implication that it was all right with the world community if Qaddafi deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds just exercising their right to peaceful assembly and to petition their government."

Cole is implying our opposition means we "acquiesced" in Qaddafi's onslaught and further, we thought "it was all right" if he deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds.

For someone of his stature to resort to such a deplorable straw man framing of the issue is to seriously exceed the bounds of civility.

Martin Donovan

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