How is it that Congress isn’t screaming at President Obama for usurping its power to take this nation to war against Libya? (Even Bushes #41 and #43 had their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq authorized.) And if Congress isn’t screaming, then why aren’t we? We should be. The power to make war impacts us all: it kills, it costs our dwindling treasury, and it has serious consequences.
Those are just some of the reasons why the Constitution doesn’t allow the president to make the decision to go to war unilaterally — a fact that Obama, himself a former constitutional law professor, knows full well. If fact, when candidate Obama was asked if the president could bomb Iran without authority from Congress, he categorically 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.”
Candidate Obama’s letter perfect response reveals precisely how well he understands the framers’ fear of giving the power to initiate war to the president. As James Madison, principal author of the Constitution wrote, “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war to the Legislature.” Consequently, Article 1, section 8, cl. 11 states that Congress and only Congress can authorize the use of military force against another country. It makes no difference whether it’s called war or a “military action” — Obama’s term for the attack on Libya.
Some have argued that it would have made little difference for Obama to have asked for authority — that Congress would have approved the war anyway. Whether or not that’s true, it’s not the point. Had Obama gone to Congress there would have been the kind of public debate that’s necessary in any country that calls itself a democracy.
A debate would have served several vital functions. It would have involved the American people in a momentous decision. It would have given Congress the option of rejecting Obama’s war or putting conditions on it. Most importantly, it might have aired some difficult, vital questions: Why Libya and not the Ivory Coast, where thousands are being murdered? Why Libya and not Israel when it was killing 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza? Was this really a war about saving lives or was it about oil? Why is the African Union not supporting the war? Is this war really about regime change? Are not three wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, three too many?
Obama’s decision is another shocking example of his grab for the kind of executive power he eschewed in his predecessor’s administration — so long as he was still a candidate. Many of us had hoped that the ghost of Vietnam, our infamous Executive-made war, would be exorcised by this Nobel Peace Prize-winning President. Instead, Obama has brought this specter back from the dead.