Taking Congress for Granted
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The language with which President Obama described earlier today the onset of military actions at Libya bears an uncanny similarity to the language with which President Bush on March 19, 2003, described the onset of fighting at Iraq. The similarity was marked by, among others, the Drudge Report. “Today we are part of a broad coalition. We are answering the calls of a threatened people. And we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world,” the Drudge Report quotes Mr. Obama as saying today. “American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger,” Drudge quotes Mr. Bush as having said a decade earlier. No one is suggesting the situations are parallel or that there will be fighting in Libya on the scale seen at Iraq. It’s the linguistic similarity that is remarkable.
But there is also a contradistinction. It has to do with the Congress. Mr. Obama is reported to have consulted with Congress — or at least some congressmen — before going to the United Nations for authority to act in Libya. But he did not seek or get an up-or-down vote in the Congress, and by our lights that was a mistake. We don’t gainsay the President’s authority. He is commander in chief, and the situation on the ground in Libya has been moving very fast. But, for that matter, so was the situation in Iraq in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush was considering whether to “go to ground,” as the saying was back then, to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. Mr. Bush didn’t have to go to Congress for authority, but he was wise enough to do so anyhow. In the event, the war was, given the limits he had set, over swiftly.
A similar situation was faced by President George W. Bush at the outset of the fighting in Iraq. The situation was fast-moving and dangerous, and there were those of us who believed the president didn’t need to go to Congress for an authorization to use force against Saddam. A broad resolution, after all, had been put into place after September 11, 2001, giving him all kinds of authority to use his judgment, even against countries that had merely harbored terrorists. But the 43rd president did go to Congress in a request for authority that is often mocked because it relied on intelligence in respect of weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be faulty. But the list of “whereas”-es in the Iraq war resolution is long and thorough, making it clear that weapons of mass destruction were not the only issue. So Congress was formally brought into the conflict, and the president’s authority was secure.
What Mr. Obama was thinking by failing to go for a formal vote from the Congress prior to going for a formal vote at the United Nations is hard to fathom. It may be that he was modeling his modus operandi on that of President Clinton during Yugoslavia. Mr. Clinton gave Congress barely a “how-do-you-do” in respect of the bombing of Belgrade. Instead America entered the conflict under the aegis of the North Atlantic Treaty. The House actually declined to approve a war resolution. The conflict lasted nearly three months. Could Mr. Obama and his state secretary have taken in Libya a page from Mr. Clinton’s book?
In any event, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Rich’d Lugar, said that he would have preferred to have the chance for a war vote. Or so he indicated at a hearing on the 17th instant, saying, according to the Dow Jones newswire, that before entering the fray the administration “should first seek a Congressional debate on a declaration of war under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.” Senator Corker asked a state under secretary, Wm. Burns, whether the administration felt a war declaration was needed. The secretary, according to Dow Jones, replied: “I can’t give you a yes/no answer.” Instead he promised to relay the question to Secretary Clinton and the White House.
* * *
We’ll leave it to the commander in chief to decide whether that is how he wants to deal with the Congress. Our own hope is that our forces, and those of our allies, will have quick success in Libya. If they don’t, if the going gets tougher than anticipated, we expect these columns will be with them through the long haul. For little in our long newspaper life has so disgusted us as the way the Democrats turned on President Bush during the dark days of the Battle of Iraq. The fact is that even a small war that is expected to be over quickly is a grave matter. And the commander in chief deserves to have the support of the whole country even when he doesn’t make the effort to ask for it in the traditional democratic way.