The US is now at war in a third Muslim country, according to the "official tally" (that is, counting Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, but not Pakistan or Yemen, for example.) But Congress has never authorized or debated the US military intervention in Libya.
Some will no doubt claim that the president is acting in Libya within his authority as commander in chief. But this is an extremely dangerous claim.
To put it crudely: As a matter of logic, if President Obama can bomb Libya without congressional authorization, then a future President Palin could bomb Iran without congressional authorization. If, God forbid, we ever get to that fork in the road, you can bet your bottom dollar that the advocates of bombing Iran will invoke congressional silence now as justification for their claims of unilateral presidential authority to bomb anywhere, anytime.
Congressional objections to Obama's bombing of Libya
Some members of Congress have strongly objected to Mr. Obama's bombing of Libya without congressional approval.
On the Democratic side, John Larson, chair of the Democratic Caucus in the House, called for Obama to seek congressional approval. Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Donna Edwards, Mike Capuano, Dennis Kucinich, Maxine Waters, Rob Andrews, Sheila Jackson Lee, Barbara Lee, and Eleanor Holmes Norton "all strongly raised objections to the constitutionality of the president's actions" during a Saturday call organized by Larson, Politico reports.
"They consulted the Arab League. They consulted the United Nations. They did not consult the United States Congress," one Democrat[ic] lawmaker said of the White House. "Almost everybody who spoke was opposed to any unilateral actions or decisions being made by the president, and most of us expressed our constitutional concerns. There should be a resolution and there should be a debate so members of Congress can decide whether or not we enter in whatever this action is being called," added another House Democrat opposed to the Libyan operation.
On the Republican side, Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking member on Senate Foreign Relations, told CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday that, if we're going to war with Libya, we ought to have a declaration of war by the Congress.
Obama's own words: president doesn't have that power
A memo distributed to Republican aides in the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee made the case that congressional authorization is necessary and used Obama's own words to make the case.
On Dec. 20, 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked a question: "In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress?"
His response: "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."
Congressional debate key to pressuring Obama
In times like this, you can be sure some journalist will marvel at the "strange bedfellows" coalition of Democrats and Republicans standing up to the president. But there's nothing strange about this bed. Everyone who wants to live in a constitutional republic belongs in this bed. Everyone who wants to hold the administration to its promise of a "limited intervention" aimed at "protecting civilians," rather than overthrowing the Libyan government, and to avoid "mission creep" from the former to the latter, belongs in this bed.
Congressional debate is a key means of compelling the administration to clearly state its case and its objectives, to be honest and transparent about the potential cost of its proposed policies and to limit its actions to its stated objectives; and to force members of Congress to go on the record, in opposition or in support, and to state clearly, if they support, what it is that they support. On cost, for example: each Tomahawk missile is reported to cost on the order of a million dollars. So, firing 110 of them over the weekend cost about $100 million, far more than House Republicans cut from National Public Radio with great fanfare. Shouldn't Congress consider this expenditure?
Two days into the military intervention, there was already sharp dispute over whether the military intervention that has unfolded has already gone beyond what the UN Security Council authorized and what the Arab League endorsed.
With Benghazi apparently no longer under Libyan government threat, and with Western bombs falling in Tripoli, this dispute over the scope of Western military intervention is virtually certain to intensify. You can debate the constitutional issue of war powers until the cows come home; but as a practical matter, if Congress doesn't formally address the issue, such debate isn't very relevant.
If a majority of the House and the Senate support the present US military intervention in Libya, let them say so on the record, at least, by voting for a resolution to authorize military force. If the majority of the House or Senate are opposed, let them say so on the record. A minimum standard for transparency in government is that the House and the Senate go on the record for or against a new war.
Robert Naiman is policy director at Just Foreign Policy and president of Truthout’s board of directors.
An original version of this piece first appeared at truth-out.org.