For a supposedly anti-war liberal Obama sure doesn’t seem to have a problem leading the U.S. to conflict (with the exception of against nuclear bomb seeking Iran). In early 2011, with the breakout of protests against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Obama didn’t even wait for human rights abuses to occur before beating the drums of war. At the time Obama claimed “we have every reason to believe that Gaddhafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized.” The same person who lacked the vision to foresee the surge strategy in Iraq working was now the Oracle of Delphi when it came to predicting future events in Libya.
The conflict taking place in Libya was a civil war between pro-Gadhafi forces and their revolutionary enemies, but it wasn’t as though the Libyan military was machine gunning down innocent citizens in the streets like what was happening in Syria, Bahrain, or Yemen, none of which required a military response in Obama’s opinion. Perhaps France wanted to keep its supply of North African oil flowing or maybe the Arab League was keen on pretending that they weren’t a collection of bloodthirsty murderers every bit as bad or worse than Gadhafi. Whatever the reason, the UN sensed the opportunity to exact regime change in Libya and even better, using the U.S. military to do their dirty work for them.
Obama, always willing to prostrate himself on the international stage to look good, agreed to send in U.S. airpower to pummel the Libyan government into submission without even bothering to ask Congress for permission. Obama instead relied on the War Powers Resolution which grants a President 60 days to use military might in case of a “national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces”, but this didn’t pass legal muster since Gadhafi had not attacked the U.S. and in the words of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Libya “was not a vital national interest to the United States.”
When Congress demanded that Obama justify his actions, he sent them a letter stating that use of the U.S. military was “authorized by the United Nations Security Council”. This caused many political observers to scratch their heads since there is no mention of the UN Security Council in the U.S. Constitution which unambiguously states that only Congress has the authority “to declare war”. While Democrats like to forget they also voted to authorize the war in Iraq, Bush didn’t go to Bagdad without Congress’s permission. On the other hand Obama took us to war in Libya for no other reason than France said it was okay, working under a coalition of nations half the size of the one he accused Bush of “unilateral” action in Iraq.
Both the Pentagon general counsel and acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel disputed the legal justification for continuing hostilities past 60 days. When the two month limit approached they warned “the United States military’s activities in the NATO-led air war amounted to ‘hostilities’. Under the War Powers Resolution, that would have required Obama to terminate or scale back the mission after May 20.” Not satisfied with their opinion, Obama shopped around until he found a couple of administration lackeys who would back his move:
White House counsel, Robert Bauer, and the State Department legal adviser, Harold H. Koh — who argued that the United States military’s activities fell short of “hostilities.” Under that view, Mr. Obama needed no permission from Congress to continue the mission unchanged.
Obama claimed that once the war was handed over to NATO control it was no longer an American conflict which required Congress’s approval. Considering the U.S. “provided 93 percent of the cruise missiles, 66 percent of the personnel, 50 percent of the ships and 50 percent of the planes” Speaker of the House John Boehner was unimpressed with the legal technicality. In a June 2011 statement Boehner said:
From the outset of this operation, Members of the House have demonstrated respect for the authority granted to the Commander-in-Chief. Unfortunately, the President has not exhibited a similar appreciation for Congress’ important job of providing oversight and accountability. Even worse, he has failed to communicate to the American people why continuing this mission is critical to our national security.
In the end the Libyan war that Obma insisted would take “days, not weeks” lasted eight months and cost American taxpayers $1.1 billion.