The recent dustup between President Obama and Congress over the relevance of the War Powers Act to American military involvement in Libya has diverted America's attention from the deeper issue at stake in the conflict: the growing incompatibility between our global military empire and our pressing domestic needs.
Yes, one can accuse Republicans of hypocrisy for having suddenly discovered, under a Democratic president, that wars are costly and that, perhaps, executive authority should not be unchecked.
On the other hand, many Democrats, beginning with the president, have been similarly hypocritical on issues of war and the expansion of the national security state. Candidate Obama spoke repeatedly and eloquently about the false pretenses under which the United States went to war in Iraq and how that was symptomatic of the broader attack on the rule of law perpetrated by the Bush/ Cheney regime.
Since he took office, however, President Obama has largely embraced the Bush/ Cheney view of the national security state and, in important respects, has expanded it, particularly in his administration's unprecedented attack on whistleblowers. And even with Obama's proposed drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan into next year, the total U.S. presence there will still be double what it was when he took office. Add to that the 50,000 U.S. personnel that remain in Iraq with an undetermined number to be deployed indefinitely, our escalating predator drone attacks in Pakistan and now Yemen, and the intervention in Libya, and it's clear that war-making remains a fully bipartisan affair.
Furthermore, one of the ugly developments after 9/11 was the pervasive suggestion that to question or criticize the administration "during a time of war" amounted to treasonous behavior, an accusation repeatedly hurled at liberal critics of the Bush administration. So it was particularly disgraceful when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently challenged congressional resistance to the war in Libya by pointedly asking "whose side are you on?" Vice President Cheney couldn't have said it better himself.
In sum, the twists and turns of partisan rancor are only a distraction from the ever-expanding American war machine and attendant domestic surveillance state. President Obama's rationale for why he didn't need authorization from Congress to engage U.S. forces in Libya is instructive in this regard. He rejected the advice of his top legal advisers in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), who argued that our intervention in Libya clearly qualified as conflict under the meaning of the War Powers Act and the Constitution and, therefore, required congressional approval. In rejecting OLC's understanding, the administration has argued, among other things, that "U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof, or any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors."
Critics have noted the absurdity of arguing that we aren't actually engaged in combat simply because U.S.-supported NATO bombing of Libya is from a distance, out of the range of Libyan forces. By that standard, flattening whole towns or even cities without reprisal would not constitute military action. Likewise, deployment of cruise missiles and predator drones, no matter how many people they killed, would not amount to combat because there would be no risk to United States personnel.
But the most obvious test of the president's claim that we're not really engaged in an act of war is to ask: What if the shoe were on the other foot? Let's say a coalition of foreign forces was bombing American cities and killing our citizens with the intent to overthrow our political leadership. How would we respond to an argument by one party to that assault that their use of unmanned weapons to kill Americans shouldn't be deemed an engagement of hostilities with us? Merely to pose the question is to understand the utter preposterousness of the administration's position. The administration's real goal, since it almost certainly would have received congressional approval for war in Libya had it sought it from the beginning, appears to be to extend the principle that when it comes to war and "national security" (increasingly broadly defined), the executive branch should be unconstrained to act as it sees fit. As James Fallows has written, "after three months of combat, and after several decades of drift toward unilateral Executive Branch action on matters of war and peace, Obama is doing a disservice to the nation, history, and himself by insisting that the decision should be left strictly to him."
One might argue that Libya is a relatively low-cost affair and that, since the goals of deposing Gadhafi, a vile man and brutal dictator, and supporting the aspirations of Libyan citizens for freedom are laudable, we needn't haggle over the means to achieving those goals. But the increasing insularity of executive authority from accountability, our persistent resort to force and the president's tortured attempt to justify unilateral decision-making about deploying force in Libya is emblematic of a larger pathology—an out-of-control empire often indifferent to loss of life abroad and unable to face squarely the degradation of life at home.
And the burgeoning costs of our ventures abroad do have significant adverse consequences domestically. The growing attack against people of modest means in America is a congenial outcome for the modern American right. But if progressives claim to oppose that assault on ordinary Americans, how are they to square such opposition with tacit or active support for a massive and nearly all-powerful military-industrial complex, while countenancing our elites' arrogation of unaccountable power over ever-widening spheres of our national life?
Eloquent words aside, the president cannot ultimately be committed to perpetual war and the ever-expanding national security state on the one hand and the betterment of the lives of ordinary Americans on the other. Yes, those are powerful interests to take on. But in a world of finite resources and the ever-present temptations of corrupting power, the trade-offs involved between guns and butter are insurmountable. It would have been better for Secretary Clinton to ask which side her administration is on, rather than to have engaged in the kind of patriot-baiting that liberals spent years decrying, while yet another American military entanglement feeds the further bloating of our war-making executive branch at the expense of ordinary Americans.