Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Road To Hell

The road to Hell is certainly paved with good intentions. Unfortunately, it's also paved with good Presidents. Obama has finally consented to explain why the Libyan war is not really a war or hostile action or anything, but really some sort of exotic camping trip that in no way requires him to abide by the rules set forth in the War Powers Act.

In a 32 page report, his administration generously devotes an entire paragraph to explaining why they're not blatantly breaking the law. A White House official sums up:

“We’re not engaged in sustained fighting. There’s been no exchange of fire with hostile forces. We don’t have troops on the ground. We don’t risk casualties to those troops,” said one senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity during a conference call arranged by the White House. “None of the factors, frankly, speaking more broadly, has risked the sort of escalation that Congress was concerned would impinge on its war-making power.”

This pablum deserves to be attacked.

First of all, we most certainly are engaged in sustained fighting by virtue of the fact that we're providing enormous amounts of support and materiel to our NATO allies (at a predicted cost of $1.1 billion assuming hostilities end by September). Though I may not be a lawyer, my understanding is that there are myriad laws on the book covering this sort of thing. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that when you willingly provide support to others, you're known as an accomplice and just as responsible as anyone physically involved in actions. Saying that we're "not engaged" ignores this principle.

Granted we have no troops on the ground as yet (we'll see how long that lasts once Libya becomes a power vacuum). However, this is no longer the Napoleonic era. War cannot and must not be defined merely by the presence of soldiers on the ground. It's inarguable that war has gained a few more dimensions since an Italian airman first thought to drop grenades on Turkish soldiers from his biplane back in 1911 (coincidentally enough, in Libya). This official would have us accept a definition that is at loggerheads with the past hundred years of violence. Was Pearl Harbor somehow not an act of war because there were no Japanese soldiers on the ground in Hawaii?

The second problem with this formulation is that it's based solely on physical risk. On the one hand this ignores the enormous actual costs of the adventure in terms of treasure. Just as significantly however, it ignores moral culpability. Like most countries, America's foreign policy is (very broadly, I admit), represented abroad by the carrots offered up by our diplomatic corps and the sticks wielded by our military. In either case though, these are the representatives of our country. Whether it's Clinton offering aid to post-tsunami Japan or a drone being piloted by a CIA operative, these are the things that people look to as the face of America. There is a solemn duty and responsibility to consider what face we put forth regardless of whether or not there is any actual physical risk. If Congress has the right to approve or reject a potential ambassador to Burkina Faso, it most absolutely has the right to approve a bombing campaign regardless of whether or not any American lives are at risk.

I started this post by noting that "the road to hell is paved with good Presidents". Let me expand on that by saying that I believe that Qaddafi should go. I believe that the people of the world have a right to live without fear of autocratic madmen and that the United States can and should have (an albeit limited), role in bringing about that happy day. The campaign in Libya is in fact a just one, meant to remove a tyrant from power. I will give Obama the benefit of the doubt. But what of the next campaign and what of the next President? If you're willing to entrust Obama with the great and terrible power to wage war carte blanche, will you grant the same authority to his successor? To return to the Pearl Harbor analogy; don't you think that in retrospect, the Japanese would have really preferred to have a parliament that was capable of reigning in the imperialistic fantasies of their prime minister?

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