Conservatives Challenge Obama Over Libya

Poor Daniel Larison. Imagine living in his world, a dark, forbidding universe where the neocons were never discredited, where the interventionist consensus is bipartisan and unchallengeable, and only a pitifully small Remnant understands that there’s nothing conservative about empire-building. Larison, a writer for The American Conservative – that heroic bastion of anti-interventionist, proto-libertarian sentiment on the right – spends a great deal of energy "proving" that the very movement his magazine seeks to build does not, in fact, exist.

When Rep. Jason Chaffetz started questioning the Afghanistan war, Larison dourly remarked on the Utah Republican’s probable support for attacking Iran. Now that Obama has intervened in Libya, Larison is singing the same melancholy tune.

"If ever there were a time for populist American nationalists who can’t stand Obama and claim to venerate and narrowly interpret the Constitution to protest, this would be it. Of course, this is not what’s happening. Weigel explains:

"’There are individual Tea Party leaders, like Williams or Rand Paul, who wince at a military intervention undertaken like this. The Tea Party is libertarian in plenty of ways. But if it has one defining characteristic, it’s that it’s nationalist. If there’s a way to remove Gadhafi decades after he aided the Lockerbie bombers, then that’s more important than a debate over the deep thoughts of the founders. In a Saturday interview with Fox News, Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., one of the most popular politicians to win the support of the Tea Party, explained that his problem with the intervention was about grit, not the Constitution.’

Continuing his sour-faced griping, Larison concludes:

"… I didn’t expect a great outpouring of antiwar sentiment from Tea Party-aligned Republicans in Congress, but opposing the Libyan war is a fairly easy call. It doesn’t require a full embrace of Ron Paul’s foreign policy views. It just requires some minimal adherence to their professed beliefs. The Libyan war represents everything Tea Partiers are supposed to dislike about Obama and Washington, and it should offend their nationalist and constitutionalist sensibilities. The first real test to see what a "Tea Party foreign policy" might be is here, and with some honorable exceptions Tea Partiers and the members of Congress they have supported have proved that they are indistinguishable from the hawkish interventionists that have dominated the GOP’s foreign policy thinking for the last decade and more."

With Congress on Spring break, and the war but a few days old, the unfairness of such a summary judgment was underscored by an "update" published a few hours after Larison’s original post, noting Sen. Mike Lee’s criticism of the Libyan adventure as foolhardy and unconstitutional. Others soon joined Lee in making equally cogent and principled critiques, yet none were noted by Larison, perhaps because it undermines his view of the anti-interventionist right as a remnant of an unrecoverable past rather than the wave of the future.

Senators Lee and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) have both come out against the Libyan intervention, and so has Rep. Chaffetz:

"Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, does not back President Obama’s plan for military force in Libya. ‘I’ve got real questions for the president,’ he said. ‘I just don’t believe that you unilaterally use United States’ forces the way that we have.’

"Chaffetz knows the Libyan people have suffered at the hands of dictator Muammar Gadhafi, but the congressman does not believe U.S. forces should take part in ‘policing’ the globe. ‘No doubt that Gadhafi is one of the world’s bad guys, but the use of U.S. force raises it to another level,’ he said. He criticized the president for making his case to the United Nations, rather than to Congress and the American people.

"After the initial phases of the military action unfold, Chaffetz says, he and other members of Congress will press the issue. ‘Unless there’s a clear and present danger to the United States of America, I don’t think you use U.S. forces in North Africa in what is the equivalent of a civil war,’ he said."

Larison once scoffed at Chaffetz as someone "who cannot be taken seriously," and yet how seriously can we take a pundit who refuses to see the progress his own (alleged) cause is making? The reality is that the anti-interventionist conservative critique that originated in the pages of his very own magazine, The American Conservative – as well as in the campaigns of Rep. Ron Paul – is echoing in the halls of Congress. See, for instance, this:

"Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is calling the decision of President Barack Obama to deploy force again Libya without first seeking congressional authorization ‘an affront to the Constitution.’

"Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces. In a statement Monday, he said ‘The United States does not have a King’s army.’

"’President Obama’s administration has repeated the mistakes of the Clinton administration concerning bombing in Kosovo and the George W. Bush administration concerning invading Iraq by failing to request and obtain from the U.S. Congress unambiguous prior authorization to use military force against a country that has not attacked U.S. territory, the U.S. military or U.S. citizens,’ he said. ‘This is particularly ironic considering then-Senator Obama campaigned for the Democratic nomination based upon his opposition to President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.’

"While Muammar Gadhafi ‘is a tyrant despised throughout the Middle East and North Africa,’ Bartlett said, and ‘his brutal and merciless attacks against his own citizens are horrific," it is ‘self-evident’ that the situation in Libya ‘is not an emergency.’

"’The Obama administration sought and obtained support from both the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council to authorize military force against Gadhafi,’ Bartlett said. ‘The Obama administration also had time to organize a 22-nation coalition to implement a no-fly zone with military attacks led by U.S. Armed Forces against Gadhafi’s forces.

"’Nonetheless, the Obama administration failed to seek approval from the American people and their elected legislators in the Congress. Failing to obtain authorization from the U.S. Congress means that President Obama has taken sole responsibility for the outcome of using U.S. military forces against Gadhafi onto his shoulders and his administration.’"

Rep. Tim Johnson, Illinois Republican, and a tea party favorite, has this to say:

"Constitutionally, it is indisputable that Congress must be consulted prior to an act of war unless there is an imminent threat against this country. The president has not done so. In fact, this is the same man who questioned President Bush’s constitutional authority to commit troops to war.

"Our country has no business enmeshing itself in another country’s civil unrest. We were not attacked. Our national security interests are not at stake. It is the American people, through their elected representatives, who are constitutionally empowered to take this kind of action. Not the president.

"We have spent $443.5 billion in the war in Afghanistan since 2001. We have spent $805.6 billion in Iraq in that time. We are already beyond broke for largely unacceptable reasons, and the president has just added to that dubious legacy, committing American lives and dollars without our consent and no end game in sight.

"The first night of this attack, we fired 112 Tomahawk missiles. Each of these missiles can cost up to $1.5 million. That’s $168 million for one night’s assault. Estimates to maintain the no-fly zone, depending on how much of the country we want to dominate, can cost $30 million to $100 million per week. Our commitment to that goal is to date open-ended."

The conservatives who are speaking out against the Libyan action are not just angry because the administration went to the UN Security Council instead of the US Congress to seek authorization, they are also attacking the underlying policy, the dangerous "responsibility to protect" doctrine. This is explicitly rejected by Barlett and other conservatives, who note Libya "has not attacked US territory, the US military, or US citizens."

If this is now the standard, then the War Party has lost the tea partiers, a group that includes Bartlett, Lee, Chaffetz, and Justin Amash – who is introducing legislation to defund the Libyan war. In the absence of a similar protest on the left, these tea partiers are the most vocal and visible opponents of the Libyan war. Together with Ron and Rand Paul, they are leading a new generation of conservative Republicans to do battle with the interventionist consensus that dominates Washington.

A couple of weeks ago, Glenn Greenwald – another writer, like Larison, with whom I share certain ideological sympathies – wrote a piece on the Tea Party and US foreign policy that was somewhat sympathetic to the idea that their less government philosophy leads logically to support for civil liberties on the home front and anti-interventionism in the foreign policy realm. Yet there was, to be sure, a certain condescending air that permeated Glenn’s piece, and in the course of it he remarked that the libertarians and paleoconservatives constitute small factions "without much political influence." Today, as the main voices of protest against an unconstitutional and potentially very dangerous war come from these very elements, while the Democratic "left" (pathetically represented by the likes of Nancy Pelosi) mindlessly cheerleads this latest empire-building excursion, there are ample grounds to challenge Greenwald’s appraisal – and Larison’s.

Indeed, the freshmen tea partiers and Ron Paul supporters aren’t the only ones questioning the Libya "rescue" operation. Haley Barbour, a pillar of the Republican establishment of some considerable girth and weight, is not only asking "What are we doing in Libya?" but is also questioning our ten-year Afghan crusade, and wondering aloud why we can’t cut our bloated military budget. Indeed, Tim Pawlenty, the neocons’ favorite GOP presidential candidate (to date), was quick to attack Barbour for entertaining such heresy.

The "isolationist" (i.e. pro-peace, anti-internationalist) sentiment represented – albeit unevenly, and inconsistently — by the populist tea party movement is trickling up to the higher tiers of the Republican party leadership, so that even House Speaker John Boehner felt compelled to issue a statement questioning the process if not the policy that led to US involvement in Libya’s civil war.

This "trickle up" process is working slowly, but surely. As the Obama administration embarks on a course determined in advance by its ideological premises — a crass self-declared "pragmatism" which amounts to supporting the status quo unless and until it becomes untenable, and then pursuing whatever policy will satisfy the dominant factions within his own administration – Republican opposition is crystallizing. That many Republicans are reacting to this in a purely partisan manner is irrelevant: some opposition to Obama’s Libyan adventure may start out as a partisan ploy, but political necessity is quick to harden into ideological conviction.

Ever since the Kosovo war – indeed, since this web site’s very inception – has been plugging away at the conservative pro-war consensus as an ideological distortion, and pointing to an alternative view which holds that limited government has to mean limited involvement in the affairs of other nations. You can’t have a Republic and have an Empire at the same time. You can’t hope to cut back the power of government if that government must have the funding and the executive flexibility to send US troops anywhere in the world without a by your leave either to Congress or to the long-oppressed taxpayers who are footing the bill.

That message is finally beginning to sink in. No, we aren’t taking exclusive credit for this sudden awakening: it’s the result of years of work by many people on many different levels, but has, indeed, been a major factor in this remarkable shift, and I don’t mind saying so.

Let David Weigel, the turncoat former Kochtopus employee who smeared Ron Paul as a "racist," cite the irrelevant Alan West all he wants: he and his newfound "progressive" buddies have an interest in denying the reality of a new movement on the right that opposes foreign meddling by the US government as well as Washington’s meddling with our healthcare. Having defected from Team Red to Team Blue, Weigel makes a living off the discredited and archaic "left-right" paradigm, which insists that everyone on the right is a Neanderthalish rube just itching to get him some Muslim scalps: citing him hardly helps Larison’s case.

The constitutionalist-libertarian movement initially energized by Ron Paul’s heroic efforts has grown well beyond the organizational confines of Paul’s Campaign for Liberty and its growing and very active youth section, Young Americans for Liberty. A broad, grassroots movement has arisen that not only embraces the economics of freedom long championed by Rep. Paul, but also insists on the Paulian insight that our foreign policy of global intervention is an obstacle placed in the path of taking back our old Republic. Their horror at the presidential supremacism exhibited by President Obama as he goes to war without a vote in Congress is rooted in a principled opposition to Big Government per se, and in a recognition that imperialism is inherently hostile to their vision of a free America.

Larison writes that he’s "still waiting for that new antiwar right." Well, Dan, the waiting is over. So relax, sit back, and enjoy it.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].