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.
Here is some unsolicited advice for the Obama Administration: you essentially have four days to put US involvement in the Libya war on a path that doesn't look like open-ended quagmire.
Otherwise, when the House comes back next week, you're going to get in trouble.
Many people have difficulty imagining the possibility that Congress could give the Obama Administration difficulty over the Libya war. Since 2001, many people think, Congress has rolled over for both the Bush and Obama Administrations on questions of war and peace. Why should now be any different?
The view that Congress has only rolled over misses important history. For example, the legislative fight over a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq was a significant contributor to the fact that we have such a timetable for withdrawal today, even though such a timetable was never enacted legislatively. Congress lost the issue legislatively, but eventually won the issue politically.
But the more important point here that many people aren't thinking about yet is that the political dynamics of the coming debate over the Libya war could be very different from the debates over Iraq and Afghanistan. If the Libya war is going full-bore next week with heavy US involvement, there could be significant opposition in Congress, especially in the House, from both Democrats and Republicans.
The U.S. is now at war in a third Muslim country, according to the "official tally" (that is, counting Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya but not Pakistan or Yemen, for example.) But Congress has never authorized or debated the U.S. military intervention in Libya. (A sharply disputed claim holds that the Pakistan and Yemen actions are covered by the 2001 authorization of military force, but no-one has dared to argue that the 2001 AUMF covers Libya.)
Some will no doubt claim that the President is acting in Libya within his authority as Commander-in-Chief. But this is an extremely dangerous claim.
To put it crudely: as a matter of logic, if President Obama can bomb Libya without Congressional authorization, then President Palin can bomb Iran without Congressional authorization. If, God forbid, we ever get to that fork in the road, you can bet your bottom dollar that the advocates of bombing Iran will invoke Congressional silence now as justification for their claims of unilateral Presidential authority to bomb anywhere, anytime.
Some Members of Congress have strongly objected to President Obama's bombing of Libya without Congressional approval.
On the Democratic side, John Larson, chair of the Democratic Caucus in the House, called for President Obama to seek congressional approval. Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Donna Edwards, Mike Capuano, Dennis Kucinich, Maxine Waters, Rob Andrews, Sheila Jackson Lee, Barbara Lee and Eleanor Holmes Norton "all strongly raised objections to the constitutionality of the president's actions" during a Saturday call organized by Larson, the Politico reports.
Surely no-one has been surprised to see Senator McCain engaged in what Defense Secretary Gates has rightly called "loose talk" about the use of U.S. military force in Libya.
But to see Senator John Kerry, the Democratic head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - the man who as a Vietnam veteran joined other anti-war veterans in asking who would be the last American to be asked to die in Vietnam - engage in such "loose talk" - that is a more painful cut.
Of course, this is the same Senator Kerry who voted to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq in October 2002, even though such action was never authorized by the UN Security Council, and was therefore a major war crime in international law - the crime of aggression. And this is the same Senator Kerry who, as a presidential candidate in August 2004, stood by his vote for the war.
Here is a basic fact about the world that mainstream U.S. media - and politicians like John Kerry - generally find distasteful to acknowledge. The Charter of the United Nations rules out the use of military force by one UN member state against another except in two cases: self-defense against armed attack, and actions approved by the UN Security Council.
Obviously, Libya has not attacked the United States, and there is no realistic prospect that it will do so.
Therefore, because it is an act of war, in order to be legal under international law, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya must be approved by the UN Security Council. There is no way around it.
The United Nations Charter is not an obscure document that can be safely ignored when it is convenient to do so. It is the founding document of the United Nations. It is the Constitution of the world.
Secretary of State Clinton defended the State Department budget in Congress this week by pointing out that diplomatic interventions can prevent expensive wars. Now the State Department has a spectacular opportunity to demonstrate Secretary Clinton's argument by example. It can support robust diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Libya without a further escalation in violence.
Pipe dream? The Wall Street Journal reports today that the price of oil fell on world markets when Al Jazeera reported that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had accepted a plan proposed by Venezuela that called for a multinational commission to mediate the conflict with rebel groups; Reuters reports that Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the peace plan was "under consideration."
Of course, this doesn't mean that peace is about to break out. For example, a leader of the rebels has reportedly rejected the call for peace.
But here are some facts that should create an opening for diplomacy: the armed rebels seem to have very little military prospect of taking Tripoli. The Libyan government seems to have very little military prospect of retaking most rebel-held territory.