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Obama on Libya: What Would MLK Say?


President Obama on Monday said he would "never hesitate" to use the U.S. military "unilaterally" to defend "interests" and "values," including "maintaining the flow of commerce." Fear of exactly that led the founders of this republic to give Congress the exclusive power to declare war. James Madison did not believe any single individual could be trusted with such power:

 

"The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast, ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."

 

In 1928, the U.S. Senate ratified the Kellogg-Briand Pact, banning all war. The Senate tacked on an exception for self-defense. That ban remains the Supreme Law of the Land under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, and Libya did not attack the United States. No one, not even on Fox News, has claimed that Libya even contemplated attacking the United States. Nor would Americans consider the launching of hundreds of missiles onto U.S. soil something other and gentler than war. The U.S. government, 10 years ago, declared terrorists crashing airplanes into buildings to be an act of war on behalf of a nation that none of those terrorists were from.

 

In 1973, Congress legislated exceptions to the Constitution's placement of the power to declare war solely in the hands of the Congress:

 

"The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to
(1) a declaration of war,
(2) specific statutory authorization, or
(3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces."

 

Now, it's not hard to obtain specific statutory authorization. Just shout "terrorism!" and ask Congress to pass a bill. President Obama chose not to. And it's certainly not hard to get U.S. troops or territories attacked or to claim they've been attacked. But nobody has so much as claimed that Libya had any interest in attacking the U.S. empire in any way. The fact that Obama's letter to Congress last week pretending to comply with the War Powers Act failed to actually report all the information required (such as how long this action would last) is beside the point. The War Powers Act (quoted above) does not apply because none of the three conditions above has been met. Obama's action in Libya, if left unchallenged, establishes the power of any future president to bomb any country. Obama's claim on Monday to have consulted Congress doesn't change this. Nor does it matter whether we call bombing Libya a war or a surgical humanitarian intervention; if Congress — the full Congress — doesn't authorize it, it's unconstitutional.

 

Obama gave a lovely speech Monday evening from the point of view of anyone unfamiliar with anything he was talking about. Gadaffi, we learned, has been a tyrant for more than four decades. And the United States, the President neglected to mention, was supporting and arming him for many of those years, including right up until the moment it switched sides. The U.S. government switched sides, or "intervened," Obama explained, because Gadaffi attacked his people. As if the United States isn't backing and arming dozens of governments that attack their own people! As if the United States isn't attacking people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq!

 

Obama replied to this predictable objection, saying that just because we usually do not halt the killing of civilians is no reason not to do so in Libya where, he claimed, the United States had a unique ability to stop the killing. But I've never heard anyone actually argue that we should permit murder on one occasion because we cannot stop it everywhere. I have, however, seen the inconsistency pointed to as reason to doubt the U.S. government's stated motivations. That's the "Obama Doctrine" — we'll justify wars as humanitarian even though something completely unhumanitarian clearly motivates them. Obama's is a propaganda doctrine. What exactly is unique about the United States' ability to stop the killing of Libyans? Surely the United States has a unique ability to stop arming dictators in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Surely the United States has a unique ability to stop killing civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. That opportunity might be even more unique. The United States could stop killing the civilians it is killing in Afghanistan by simply stopping killing them. The decision to stop arming Gadaffi was an extraordinary opportunity, although identical to an opportunity we are foregoing in several other nations in that region (a region in which the United States is already "intervened" everywhere). It's what came almost immediately afterwards that people are objecting to.

 

Obama claimed on Monday to have tried to end violence without using force. He claimed to be acting in a coalition. He claimed to be transfering the mission to NATO to reduce the risks and costs. But

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