Libya Hypocrisy

To quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "Let me count the ways."

In October 2002, then Senator Barack Obama had this to say about the prospect of the Bush administration using military force against Iraq:

"[Saddam Hussein] is a brutal man.  A ruthless man.  A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.  He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.

"He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

"But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history."

But he essentially used his rationale for not taking action against Iraq as the basis for the legitimacy of his decision as president to use military force against Libya:  "For more than four decades, the Libyan people have been ruled by a tyrant – Muammar Gadhafi. He has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world."  And Gadhafi doesn’t even have those scary WMDs that the Bush administration used as a pretense for making Saddam a phantom menace.

As a United States senator and presidential candidate, Barack Obama stated, "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."  In stating his case for military intervention against Libya, the president used the terms "strategic interest" and "national interest" but not "an actual or imminent threat to the nation."  Indeed, he all but admitted that Libya wasn’t a threat: "There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are."  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was more blunt when asked directly if Libya posed an actual or imminent threat to the United States: "No, no.  It was not – it was not a vital national interest to the United States." 

Those Republicans who have been critical of President Obama’s decision to use military force against Libya have done so largely on "technical" grounds.  According to Congressman Tim Johnson of Illinois, "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, and in fact, this is the same man who questioned President Bush’s constitutional authority to commit troops to war."  Actually, the War Powers Act (passed in 1973) is what states that the president "shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities."  The Constitution, however, is clear (Article 1, Section 8) that it is the power of Congress "to declare war."  So although Bush strong-armed Congress into approving the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, he did not have a declaration of war any more than President Obama does (and the sad truth is that Congress has abdicated its responsibility to declare war in every instance of the use of U.S. military force since World War II – so, arguably, the Congress is also in violation of the Constitution).  So while Republicans arguing the Constitution are technically right, they’re also skating on thin ice because they’re just as guilty when it comes to Bush and Iraq.

Indeed, Republicans – except for the few, such as Ron Paul, who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning – are saddled with being cheerleaders for regime change in Iraq using almost the exact same rationale that Obama is using for military intervention in Libya.

Ultimately, the larger problem is that the differences between Democratic and Republican administrations are more style than substance.  Clinton demonized Slobodan Milosevic to justify his 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign: "What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier? How many people’s lives might have been saved? And how many American lives might have been saved?"  Bush characterized Saddam Hussein as "a threat to world peace."  According to Obama, Gadhafi is a tyrant who "has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world" and was intending to commit a "massacre."  All three presidents argued that these demons had to be vanquished, using words like "freedom," "democracy," and "humanitarian" to justify their actions.  So the whys and wherefores are essentially the same.  Where they differ is "how."  Not surprisingly, both Obama and Clinton believe that an international coalition and working with allies is what’s important.  Bush, however, was willing to take a more unilateral and "coalition of the willing" approach to intervention.

But unnecessary intervention is unnecessary intervention, regardless of how it’s conducted.  And – just as importantly – if there is no threat to the country or our way of life, it doesn’t matter if the president and Congress follow the Constitution to the letter.  It’s still an unnecessary war.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.