Any discussion about Libya is incomplete without mentioning Congress or the Constitution, as the Constitution specifically assigns Congress the war making decision. The President, as Commander in Chief, can only commit forces to “repel sudden attacks,” to use James Madison’s term. There was considerable debate at the Constitutional Convention and in the Federalist Papers on this question. The original intent is clear, and ‘repelling sudden attacks’ on our forces was certainly not the case in Libya.
Given the clear requirement, it’s my view that David Woolner should have mentioned the Constitution in his discussion of how Obama’s stance on Libya is taking a page from Roosevelt’s book. Invoking FDR’s memory without explaining these omissions may add weight to the charge made by conservatives that Roosevelt held the Constitution in contempt (a charge that I do not believe to be true).
Roosevelt went to Congress before he went to war. On December 8, 1941, the Congress of the United States declared war with Japan, on December 11 with Germany and Italy, and on June 5, 1942, with Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. It declared war against Japan after the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor and against Germany and Italy after those nations, under the dictators Hitler and Mussolini, declared war against the United States. It declared war against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania in response to the declarations of war by those nations against the United States. It was all quite formal and in accordance with the Constitution.
To be sure, FDR involved the US Navy in convoy escort duty and attacked German U boats before we declared war and many, including myself, believe this to be an unauthorized act of war. FDR was criticized, quite rightly, over this point. But Pearl Harbor and WWII silenced these criticisms and rendered any follow-on action mute. American ships like the Robin Moor, Sessa, Steel Seafarer, Greer, Montana, Pink Star, I. C. White, W. C. Teagle, Bold Venture, Kearny, Lehigh, Salinas, and Reuben James (a warship) were all bombed or torpedoed — and, in most cases, sunk by Germany from May 21 to October 31, 1941. Does Woolner think FDR’s slipperiness in this convoy escort mission should take precedence over Roosevelt’s association with Congress’s formal declarations when invoking his memory?
As far as Obama is taking pages out of a predecessor’s book, Truman went to war in Korea without Congressional authorization, but at least there was a clear case of aggression by North Korea and the UN/US had previously assumed responsibility for South Korea (which is very different from Obama in Libya — Gaddafi is putting down an internal revolt, and we don’t like it, but it is not aggression; he is reacting). Johnson lobbied Congress for passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. (To be sure, he lied to Congress about the attacks on the Turner Joy and the Maddox, and a friend of mine was a radar operator in the combat info center on the Turner Joy and they knew at the time there was no attack! In fairness, it is not clear what Johnson knew, but MacNamara knew.) Reagan got Congress’s permission to send troops into Lebanon, but only informed Congress after the fact when he bombed Libya, and he invaded Granada at the invitation of the OAS (but not the UN). Bush I consulted Congress before the First Iraq War. Clinton, using NATO as an umbrella, went to war in Kosovo without Congressional or UN approval (and basically cooked the rationale for the war by inserting a last minute poison pill that killed Serbia’s pending agreement to Ramboullet negotiations — more on this below). Bush II went to Congress for the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq (although he lied like Johnson in the case of Iraq, and completely ignored the possibility of a negotiation with the Taliban for turning over Osama bin Laden to an international court).
Given these precedents, I would argue that rather than taking a page out of FDR’s book, Obama took a modified page out of Reagan’s book on Grenada. Like Reagan, Obama had the approval of a local national organization; unlike Reagan, Obama also had UN approval, but neither consulted Congress. And Obama took a modified page out of Clinton’s book on Kosovo by using the NATO umbrella, but Obama had UN and Arab League approval. It must be underscored that Kosovo, in particular, is a terrible precedent. But it’s not surprising that Obama would resort to it, given that he has also borrowed a lot of Clinton’s terrible neoliberal policies.
Now a lot of liberals think Kosovo was a good precedent and a justification for ‘humanitarian intervention’ — particularly the likes of Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who were part of the group that convinced Obama to go into Libya. But the reality is that Kosovo was a bloody disaster based on contrived circumstances and distortions. (Note that Dennis Kucinich, interestingly, also objected vehemently to Kosovo — in fact, I first met him in 1999 when I was a speaker at a congressional symposium he held lambasting this issue). Indeed, Kosovo is a case study in the failure of high complexity weapons and organizational arrangements (NATO C3 in Libya is unbelievably complex) to deliver their promised performance. U.S. military planners predicted a “precision” bombing campaign would force the Serbians to capitulate in only two to three days, but the air campaign grinded on for 79 days. When the Serbians did not collapse as predicted, the target list grew exponentially (as it did in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, and WWII). The conduct of the bombing campaign was shaped more by the speed with which targets got through the approval cycle than any strategy linking a particular target’s destruction to a desired tactical or strategic effect. As a result, NATO bombers effectively destroyed the economic infrastructure of a tiny nation with an economy smaller than that of Fairfax County, Virginia. Anyone who has spent any time studying air power knows that its promises of quick easy victories are illusory — but they are great for the weapons contractors.
When Kosovo ended, NATO intelligence determined only tiny quantities of Serbian tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, and trucks — all high priority targets — were destroyed, in part because the Serbs spoofed our complex surveillance and precision guidance technologies with simple decoys.
There are even reports that they used cheap microwave ovens as decoys to attract our enormously expensive radar homing missiles. Serbian troops marched out of Kosovo in good order, their fighting spirit intact, displaying clean equipment, crisp uniforms, and in larger numbers than planners said were in Kosovo to begin with. Moreover, the terms of the Serbian “surrender,” which the undefeated Serbian military regarded as a sell-out by President Milosevic, were the same as those the Serbians agreed to at the Rambouillet Conference, before U.S. negotiators led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright inserted a poison pill (in the form of an intrusive military annex that would allow NATO troops unfettered access to Serbia proper) to queer the deal, so we could have what the politically troubled Clinton administration thought would be a neat, short war. The result is a narco-mafia state in the heart of the Balkans, whose leader has been accused of trafficking in human organs (taken from Serbians held captive).
This is the war that the “humanitarian interventionists” think is the model for meddling in countries like Libya.
So it should be no surprise that Obama’s attack on Libya is not delivering its promise of an easy victory and that the target list is now expanding beyond the suppression of air defense systems (justified technically by the establishment of a no fly zone) to attacks on supply dumps, tanks, artillery pieces, navy yards, command posts, and the national command authority (Qadafi’s compound — a euphemism for targeted assassination), etc. These latter targets have nothing to do with establishing a no fly zone. Anyone who seriously studied Kosovo or the history of air power would not be surprised by this evolution. Predictably, some at the White House are now saying this is not war.
To be sure, the Libyans are not as skilled at fighting as the Serbs, and Obama may well pull this off, but that only makes the emerging debacle even more disgraceful. FDR’s memory ought not be linked to this one.
One final point: FDR was a successful war president, but the spirit of New Deal 2.0 is more in line with his domestic policies and progressive spirit of experimentation of the original New Deal. President Obama has inherited the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis that has been building up for at least 30 years. Readers of this site understand the systemic pattern of deregulation, privatization, deindustrialization, union busting, stagnant wages, skyrocketing income inequality, etc. are undoing the achievements of New Deal and the Great Society. The huge increases in the defense budgets since 1980 are part and parcel of this evolution. Today the US is spending almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. The military-industrial-congression complex is seamlessly woven into our political economy, yet defense manufacturing distorts our economy. As I explained in the “Domestic Roots of Perpetual War“, defense manufacturing firms cannot convert to commercial production and their survival depends on ever-increasing defense budgets. The deficit hawks are lining up to cut social programs, including our safety nets, but pressure was building to include the defense budget. Readers can rest assured that the Libyan war will take the defense budget off the table. The battle between Social Security and Medicare on the one side and the Defense budget and the special interests of the MICC on the other is gearing up — and President Obama has just taken defense off the table. Score MICC one and Social Security/Medicare zero.
Chuck Spinney is an American former military analyst for the Pentagon and has been a fierce critic of wasteful defense spending.