Last week the Obama Administration, increasingly ceding American foreign policy to the “world community”, initiated military actions against Libya, for a host of stated but conflicting reasons. The actions may have been undertaken to foster regime change, they may have been initiated to protect civilians, or they may have begun for the sole purpose of toppling Colonel Moammar Gaddafi and his henchmen. Regardless of the inconsistent explanations for our mission being advanced by the various actors in this melodrama, President Obama sought no Congressional authorization before launching hostile operations in Libya. We also know that Obama failed to consult the Congressional leaders at all, but he insists that this will be done in short order.
The major elements of the prestige media who led the denunciation of President Bush for his supposed “rush to war” against Iraq in 2003 are now strangely silent despite notable dismay among congressional Republicans and some Democrats concerning Obama’s cavalier approach to war-making. Last week, none of the network news shows considered the issue, and the morning news programs also ignored the story, except for ABC, which discussed the matter last Tuesday, on their “Good Morning America” program. When one reflects on the tone of coverage in the weeks preceding the Iraq invasion of 2003, and the Libyan operation of today you must conclude that the public's right to know what their leaders are doing goes out the window when a partisan media has one of their guys in the Oval Office.
If the prestige media actually did their jobs they would admit the truth: A careful examination of the major military operations of the last twenty years shows a Republican tendency to extend a grudging approval to Congressional sensibilities in these matters while the Democrats capriciously ignore or downplay the messy business of legislative approval of combat operations. The people would not discern this from the television coverage of the Libyan situation, but the facts tell a different story.
In the summer of 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his army to invade Kuwait, the oil-rich emirate bordering the Persian Gulf. President George H.W. Bush immediately commenced a coalition building effort. In addition to cobbling together a broad alliance against Iraq he successfully engineered a Congressional Resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam if he refused to evacuate Kuwait. Both Houses of Congress duly passed the resolution, although the Senate vote was quite close. The military action to free Kuwait, known as Operation Desert Storm, commenced on January 16, 1991 after sufficient Congressional consultation and with wide public support, although a number of prominent Democrats like Tennessee Senator Al Gore and Missouri Congressman Dick Gephart tried to hedge their bets for political reasons.
Compare this record of Congressional inclusiveness against Democratic President Bill Clinton’s evasive and slippery conduct of military operations during the same decade. In December of 1998, President Clinton, desperate to fend off impeachment, launched Operation Desert Fox, a combined air and ground based missile assault on Iraq. The President cited the inconsequential Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 as his authority for beginning combat operations, even though this congressional resolution made no mention of military action whatsoever. Similarly, President Clinton ordered the use of American air power in the NATO-led drive against Serbia, which began on March 24, 1999. The President and his Democratic Party cohort argued that a NATO military operation required no congressional authorization, no United Nations approval, and essentially no public support either. President Clinton ignored Congress, the multilateral organizations, and a significant segment of world opinion when he launched a seventy-eight day bombing campaign on his own say-so. The Congress finally issued a non-binding resolution supporting the action on April 28, 1999…five weeks after the opening of hostilities.
In the autumn of 2002, President George W. Bush began building a case for military action against Iraq. He dispatched his Secretary of State to the United Nations for the now-customary routine of laying out the facts against Saddam Hussein for the world body. Bush sought and found allies, when he called for a “Coalition of the Willing”, ready to assist in the coming campaign. Finally the supposed renegade cowboy went to Congress. On October 10, 2002 the House of Representatives authorized the use of force against Iraq by a vote of 296-133, and the Senate followed suit the next day by a vote of 77-23. This observation of Congressional responsibility earned Bush very little official credit, and he has since seen his reputation trashed and slandered.
Now we are fighting in the skies over Libya. President Obama, home from his spring break frolic in sunny Brazil, plans to address the nation concerning Libya on Monday. There is no word on when, or if, he will seek Congressional authorization for the operation he initiated eight days ago, only a report that he plans to address the country on a matter of grave importance, one so significant that the President could not interrupt his South American sight-seeing trip and return home a few days earlier.
This cursory examination of American military actions over the last twenty years admittedly oversimplifies many complex issues. It does not consider the constitutional conundrum of Presidential military authority as Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces versus the clearly stated congressional power to declare war. Including Libya, the United States has engaged in at least 126 undeclared wars that have been conducted under Presidential authority, while we have declared war on only five occasions. Since at least the time of Theodore Roosevelt the Republicans have been nearly co-equal with their Democratic rivals in the practice of stretching Presidential military prerogatives to the breaking point. The historical record does show, however, that since the Presidency of George Bush the Elder, Republicans have been more conscientious than Democrats in seeking congressional authorization for “kinetic military actions” of the type we are engaging in today. Unfortunately, concerned citizens won’t know this if they still get their information from CBS News.