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The warning by the Speaker, John Boehner, that the Congress might move under the War Powers Act to cut off funding for military operations at Libya strikes us as a mistake, no matter which way one looks at it. If President Obama is correct, and America is not really in hostilities, there’s no reason to cut off the money and the war powers act wouldn’t be ignited anyhow. If Mr. Obama is wrong, and America is technically in the kind of hostilities that would trigger the War Powers Act, then Mr. Boehner has made an even bigger mistake. For what kind of signal does it send to our adversaries to be talking publicly of cutting off funds for a war at a time when our forces are engaged?
It happens that we’re not fans of the War Powers Act — and never have been. Congress has always had all the power it needs to stop a war, even ones in which our GIs are no longer directly engaged. We saw that in Vietnam. Our troops were long since gone, and Congress simply decided not to continue funding our ally, precipitating the Free Vietnamese into a retreat from the Central Highlands and setting the stage for the communist conquest of Indochina. It cast a population on the scale of Eastern Europe’s into two generations of darkness under a Chinese communist backed regime in Cambodia and a Soviet-style regime in Vietnam.
The drama featured a Republican president, Gerald Ford, and a Republican state secretary, Henry Kissinger, pleading with a Democratic Congress to stay with the fight, even though American troops were no longer on the ground there. Messrs. Ford and Kissinger lost the battle but brought great honor to the Republican Party. The Democrats had long since followed Senator McGovern into the wilderness of appeasement and isolationism. When the Cold War was finally won, it was because of the leadership of a Republican president who, in Ronald Reagan, grasped that containment was inadequate, coexistence was unacceptable, but that communism could be rolled back and victory was possible.
There are those on the left who are are suggesting that Reagan would have been against the expedition on which Mr. Obama has launched us today in Libya. The Daily Beast on Monday issued such a column, making much of Reagan’s sudden retreat from Lebanon following the bombing of the Marines’ barracks there. The point that stands out for us in respect of Reagan is that he was always on offense against our enemies, even if it was often via proxies such as the Contras in Central America, and he was always upping the ante in respect of the strategic balance, via a direct buildup and via Star Wars.
The Democrats spent the Reagan years counseling co-existence, disengagement, and retreat. President Clinton brought the Democrats part way back, including in the war against in Kosovo. But for the most part the Democrats’ strategy was a study in defeatism. It was such defeatism that animated President Obama’s campaign to sideline Mrs. Clinton’s run for the presidency. His victory was expected to mark a turn away from military expedition and in the event it began with his outreach at Cairo to the established regimes in the Islamic world. But it would be another kind of folly were the Republicans now to abandon the high ground they’ve won in years since Vietnam just because Mr. Obama has led us into a fight in Libya for which he failed to seek a permission that he deserved to get. That failure was a not a moral mistake but a political one.