Nice one, Mr. President – It ain’t war if they can’t fight back, is it? The recent White House Report to the U.S. House of Representatives, “United States Activities in Libya,” tells us we are currently spending over a billion dollars on a continuing NATO bombing campaign in that country. And yet it argues that President Barack Obama does not need to secure Congressional approval for this, notwithstanding the War Powers Act requirement that he do so within sixty days.
“U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of ‘hostilities’ contemplated by the Resolution’s 60 day termination provision” claims the White House, even as it acknowledges ongoing “strikes by unmanned Predator UAVs.” How can this be? The 1973 law does not apply, the report says, because the operation involves no “U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof.” Do we have an Obama Doctrine for the Drone Age here? Military operations do not require the approval of Congress until there are American casualties?
Obviously on some level we’re not expected to take this all very seriously. Yes, candidate Obama sounded very different on the War Powers Act, but as President, Obama recognizes a different “reality and responsibility,” as outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it. Libya was on the government’s permanent bucket list of “regimes” to dump should the opportunity arise. Barack Obama signed the papers. Justification could come later.
And yet, cynical as these arguments might obviously be, their effects are real. Uncomfortable as it may be to recognize that foreign casualties count for little in domestic American politics, it probably wouldn’t be all that controversial to argue that this is, in fact, the situation. And in that, the U.S. may not be particularly different from, or worse than many or most other nations. But somehow arguing that military actions do not constitute “hostilities” if the only casualties are foreign seems a whole other thing. We bomb “bad guys” and when we miss and hit civilians it’s a regrettable mistake. And none of it even merits the use of the word hostilities?
Remember those bumper stickers that said No one died when Clinton lied? Yes, he may have misled us, the unwritten argument went, but George Bush misled us into the Iraq War – ultimately a matter of far greater consequence than his predecessor’s sexual peccadilloes. It seems ironic, then, that today even“virtual” sexual activity can end a political career, but so far as undertaking a billion dollar bombing campaign goes, no approval necessary – that is, unless Americans get hurt.
When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, pretty much everyone seemed to understand from the get-go – Obama included – that the award went his way, not so much for anything he’d actually done, as for the positive effect some believed – or hoped – his election might have on the world. Those unpersuaded by this future possibility saw little merit in giving such an award to a man engaged in expanding not only the declared American war in Afghanistan but the undeclared one in Pakistan as well. Still, most credited him with at least talking a good game, which makes the current torturous logic employed in the service of the American presidency’s unilateral right to wage war all the more difficult to swallow. In politics, disappointing some of one’s supporters may be nearly inevitable, but when you disappoint even some of your harshest critics, well, you’ve done something.
It seems inadequate to say that we’re headed down a slippery slope when we write off considerations of the casualties of our military actions as trivial, so long as they are someone else’s – arguably we’ve already gone down that slope at that point. It may be unpleasant to entertain the thought that the plotters of 9/11 probably employed similar moral reasoning in justifying their actions. But even if we fail to miss the parallel, others won’t.