Obama: His Words and His Deeds

Charles Dharapak/AP Images
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in the Oval Office, May 20, 2011

In early June, a constitutional crisis faced Barack Obama over his defiance of the War Powers Act of 1973. The law requires the President to seek approval by Congress within sixty days of committing American forces to an armed conflict anywhere in the world. Two resolutions emerged and were debated in Congress to force compliance from Obama. One, drafted by the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, called for the President to give a justification of US actions in Libya. On June 3, the Boehner resolution passed by a vote of 268–145. An alternative resolution, drafted by Dennis Kucinich, the best-known anti-interventionist among Democrats, would have called for US withdrawal from Libya within fifteen days. The Kucinich resolution was defeated 148–265.

The debate and the two votes were the first major signs of congressional resistance to the aggrandizement of executive power begun by George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq and continued by Obama in Afghanistan and Libya. The reasons the President had cited in a letter to Congress for his circumvention of congressional approval of his actions in Libya betrayed a curious mixture of arrogance and disregard for the War Powers Act. The US military role in Libya, Obama said, was subordinate, and, since NATO was now in command, the Libya war hardly qualified as a war. Congress was free to discuss the matter if it liked, and he would welcome its approval, but in his view he acted within his legal powers in giving the orders without approval.

Few members of Congress as yet hold a fully articulated objection to America’s wars in Asia and North Africa. But other causes in play may trouble the President’s determination to show his sympathy with the Arab Spring by military action in Libya. Obama has an unfortunate propensity to be specific when it would serve him well to avoid particulars, and to become vague at times when dates, names, numbers, or “a line in the sand” is what is needed to clarify a policy. On Libya, he was specific. He said the American commitment would last “days, not weeks.” It has now lasted a little under three months. Reliable reporters such as Anthony Shadid of The New York Times and Patrick Cockburn of The Independent have suggested that an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight.

The narrow aim of enforcing a “no-fly zone” to protect civilians, asserted by Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton as the limit of American aims, turns out to have been a wedge for an air war against Qaddafi, a war, in fact, as thorough as is compatible with avoidance of harm to civilians. The surest thing one can say about the end of this engagement is that the US—along with France, Great Britain, and…

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