Monthly Archives: June 2011

A just cause in Libya

I wrote last week about the ambiguity surrounding the wording of the War Power’s Act and the differing interpretations of its applicability to American involvement in Libya.  Since then, numerous pundits, writers, and politicians have, confident in their own understanding of exactly what the term “hostilities” implies, have continued to assail the Obama administration’s position.  The debate over Libya culminated in two votes in the House last Friday.  A resolution to support America’s role in the conflict (and thus end the argument over the War Powers Act) was defeated 123 to 295.  However, a subsequent, largely Republican endorsed bill to restrict funding in the conflict was voted down 238 to 180.  The result hardly conveys a sense of conviction on the part of those in Congress, let alone their constituencies.

The administration is largely to blame for the frequently strong opposition to American involvement, opposition which is only tempered by pockets of modest, lukewarm support.  It has failed to make a clear case for fundamental justice of the cause in Libya.  So, I will.

First, let us think about what is happening in Libya.  Inspired by their neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia, thousands of Libyans arose in largely peaceful protest against their autocratic leader.  Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, Libyan authorities gunned down protestors in the streets and in their houses without even a pretense of restraint.  The response was an armed uprising throughout the country, led not by the fundamentalists or criminals the Libyan government portrayed, but by largely liberal-minded leaders similar in views to many who have emerged throughout the Middle East.  The contrast between the two sides, one fighting for their freedom, the other a tyrannical gangster state, could not be clearer.

So what, many have said, it is not our business not matter how noble the goals.  It is someone else’s civil war.  This quasi-isolationist position suggests that the United States should never be engaged in any conflict that doesn’t directly involve vital American interests.  Not only does this position fundamentally contradict the major strain of idealism that has existed in American foreign policy since the Spanish-American War, but also ignores the fact that there are few, if any, truly vital interests around the world that are in need of American leadership or a military presence that spans the globe.

Some argue that American intervention in Libya cannot be justified without American involvement in other areas, like Syria.  The tired old argument “if we intervene here, why not everywhere else” neglects the fact that every situation is different in terms of the feasibility, cost, and effectiveness of becoming involved.  In Libya, the lines-of-battle were and are fairly clearly defined, the zone-of-conflict extremely accessible to the U.S. Navy, and the cost of involvement very low, with no loss of American lives and, a high-side projected of cost of two billion dollars by the end of the year — about the price of a single B-2 bomber.

Under such conditions, the only case against intervention becomes a “we won’t lift a finger” -type argument by those who bore and bear no personal responsibility for the decision.  However, a decision to not intervene is a moral choice as well, and a decision far fewer opponents would likely have made had they been personally responsible for those who those who would have died as a result.

If these arguments are not enough, let’s think about why it is important for this country to depose Qaddafi — not for reasons of self-interest, but for reasons of justice.  Almost twenty-three years ago, Libyan intelligence operatives, certainly at the behest of Qaddafi, planted a bomb on Pan Am 103, which subsequently exploded killing all 259 aboard and eleven on the ground in the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland .  Many of those who died on board were likely alive for much of the unimaginably terrifying descent into the ground.

The Lockerbie bombing was the second worst terrorist attack in American history, and as a result of the terrible death toll and the recent death of Osama Bin Laden, Qaddafi is the man responsible for more American civilian deaths than any living person.  Yet many of the same congressional leaders who authorized trillions of dollars and were willing to accept thousands of American deaths to pursue the global war on terror have shown no interest in aiding the downfall of Qadaffi at far less cost.  The jubilation surrounding the death of Bin Laden was not a result of the fact that it was a huge blow for American interests, but that it was a triumph for American justice.

Often these days it feels like President Obama, a handful of “hawkish” Republicans who want to expand U.S. involvement (that’s another story), and I are about the only ones in this country supporting America’s role in Libya.  Oh, and the families of the victims of Pan Am 103 who have been, as of late, largely ignored by the media.  I assume most of them would like to see Qadaffi hung from a lamppost even more than I do.

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Fix the War Powers Act, please

Ever since the onset of the Libyan civil war earlier this year, most debate has centered on questions involving the morality and/or national interest of American intervention.   Over the past two weeks, however, the legality, rather than the morality or sensibility, of  intervention has come under scrutiny.  Dissension within Congress about the legality of the operation has even potentially served to embolden Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi in his efforts to cling to power.

The major fault line of the dispute is not about party lines or competing foreign policy visions, but rather the institutional balance-of-power between Congress and the Presidency as defined by the War Powers Act.  Over 260 years after Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws  articulated and popularized the notion of divided government (providing the subsequent inspiration and framework for much of the U.S. Constitution), no single piece of modern legislation provokes more controversy concerning the extent of legislative versus executive branch authority than the War Powers Act.

Disgruntled over the perceived lack of legislative branch input over the conduct of the Vietnam conflict, Congress passed the WPA in 1973, overriding President Nixon’s veto.  The WPA states, among other stipulations, that without explicit Congressional support within sixty days of the commencement of a military operation, the President must begin withdrawal of combat forces.

After sixty days of US involvement in Libya, many in Congress have argued then, that it is the President’s obligation to seek explicit congressional authorization for the operation.  The Obama administration, in response, has argued that because U.S. forces are only playing a logistical and intelligence support role that the administration is, therefore, not bound by the terms of the WPA.  So, which side is correct?

In terms of Libya, the administration has stated that the War Power Acts in applicable because “U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops.”  This seems in line with the original intent of the legislators drafting the law, whose major motivation was to prevent another large-scale, ongoing commitment of troops (or “War” as the name of the Act denotes) as occurred in Southeast Asia.  In this sense, the administration is correct in questioning is applicability to the limited American role in Libya.

Nevertheless, the administration’s critics have understandably argued that the implicit intention of the act is to prevent any long-term, open-ended commitment of the U.S. military without Congressional oversight.   Furthermore, the U.S. military is clearly involved in a “hostile” theater-of-operations, even if U.S. lives are largely out of harm’s way.

The ambiguity of the wording of the WPA itself is largely to blame for the current disagreement. The WPA, which was intended to clarify the Constitutional roles of a legislative branch vested with the power to “declare war” and the role of the President vested with the power of “Commander in Chief,” is itself unclear over when and how its powers apply.  A Congressional Research Services report from 2004 recognized a myriad of ambiguities related to the interpretation and execution of the WPA.

The most significant ambiguity of the law involves the statement that it applies to instances involving “the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”  Without a clear legal definition of the term “hostilities,” WPA’s applicability to a given operation becomes one that is in the eye-of-the-beholder.

The War Powers Act is, in principle, a sensible compromise between what was arguably the founding fathers’ intent for a dominant legislative role in initiating military conflicts, and the practical need for expediency in executive foreign policy decision-making.   By allowing the President a free hand in the short-term, and Congressional oversight over military action in the longer term, the War Powers Act reasonably seeks to address the dual goals of reigning in potential executive military adventurism while avoiding handcuffing the President during times of crisis.

Whatever the outcome of the current dispute between the President and members of Congress, legislators should revisit the War Powers Act in the coming years and introduce an improved, clarified version as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The importance of resolving difficult constitutional questions, like the process for deploying the armed forces, is why the founding fathers, recognizing the incompleteness of their work, included a process for amending the Constitution.  Surely such an amendment would be more central to the functioning of the republic than the last amendment that was ratified.

An amendment with more specific provisions than the current law would also provide Congress judicial backing in disputes with the executive, while providing the executive branch clearer guidelines concerning the need for consultation.

Most importantly, such an amendment would be extremely likely to be passed in Congress (certainly) and the requisite state legislatures (very likely).  Almost everyone, in principle, agrees with the need for cooperation, check and balances, and situational good sense in the deployment of U.S. personnel.  Fixing the War Powers Act and enshrining it as the law-of-the-land would receive widespread support and go a long way to resolving an issue will otherwise continue to complicate and weaken U.S. foreign policy in the future.

Why this blog?

I read an interesting op-ed today that pointed out the narcissism inherent in today’s social media.  Any good writing, however, requires a certain confidence-of-convictions that I, as a professor who is tasked with presenting subject matter “objectively,” sometimes shy away from in the classroom.  Blogging my views online, however, provides me with the opportunity to offer a more pointed analysis of events that I see happening in the political world.

There are instrumental reasons why want to undertake this project, of course.  The “press release” guy on campus always asks me for my two cents when some major international event occurs.  Now there is a web address I can point him toward.  Furthermore, my contributions as a “scholar” are somewhat limited now that, due to my physical disability, I won’t be traveling to academic conferences for the foreseeable future.  While not quite the same experience as debating academic papers, this technology allows me to share my insights and discuss the with an audience without having to leave my couch.

In the weeks to come, I will seek to hold myself to several standards.  More to the point, I hope to largely avoid some of the pathologies I read and hear on a daily basis in other discussions and editorial on politics.

Foremost, I wish to avoid the extreme “cognitive dissonance”  issues that are endemic to much political discourse these days.  That’s a fancy way of saying I want to avoid “knee-jerkism.”  Many bloggers and columnists bend all matter of facts to suit their dominant world view, and then repackage and regurgitate the same conservative or liberal talking points for public consumption.  My goal is to take an open-minded, searching approach to the issues I discuss.

Of course, those who know me, know that the George W. Bush years sent me fleeing into the arms of the Democratic Party, and there is no doubt that my views on foreign and, particularly, domestic policy tend to accord more with the progressive wing of American politics.  Nevertheless, it will never be my goal to “shill” for the Democrat party, and I hope that some of the views I express strike an occasional jarring nerve with my Democrat-minded readers.

The other major goal is to avoid the use of simplistic analogies as a substitute for reasoned, evidence-based arguments.  Phony analogies are the bread-and-butter of policy-makers and talking heads when pushing certain policies or criticizing political opponents.  Beware any commentator or politician who fancies him or herself an “amateur historian” — or, sometimes even worse — someone with a  background in history who believes in hamfistedly applying the lessons of the past to the present and the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I will use historical analogies in my blogs.  Analogies have a place in illustrating arguments, but when used as a basis for drawing conclusions, analogical reason is a recipe for lazy and slipshod arguments.  No two policies, people, or events are alike, and when this fact is neglected, political opponents all-to-often become “Hitlers” or “Marxists” (or both) and all foreign policies are justified based on the  “lessons of Munich” or the “lessons of Vietnam.”

If I can avoid some of the silliest pitfalls of other commentators in the months to come, I’ll have succeeded in some part.  Of course, I also hope to inform and entertain in some measure.   In the end, though, it’s hard to argue that this blog is not, in some ways, an exercise in narcissism.  As such, I also hope to persuade. I hope to persuade my readers to occasionally reconsider their own views, break through their own cognitive dissonance, and maybe, just maybe, to think about the political world a little bit more like me.