Last week, as the US Senate picked up the Libya debate where the House of Representatives left off, it was apparent that Libya has created a political and moral quagmire for America. At the crux of continuing House debate is the legality of the invasion, given lack of congressional approval and its war powers implications, and the morality of the invasion, given a democratic imperative vis-à-vis the "responsibility to protect" (R2P). Needless to say, reporters scrambled to present House consensus after the votes on 24 June.
The first vote was clear. The House voted overwhelmingly against authorization for the Libya invasion. This is an important gesture from a war-weary Congress, especially in light of lack of congressional approval in the past 90 days, which is required under the 1973 War Powers Resolution. For some in Congress, this vote was about taking legislative power back and reaffirming the checks and balances instated in the War Powers Act. For others, this was purely a political move, tapping into an increasingly tangible anti-war sentiment and growing discontent about the billions of dollars spent abroad, while American infrastructure crumbles. Republicans, interestingly enough, are becoming more anti-war – in part, because that is where the American public is headed.
The second vote, however, was less clear, with some media outlets reporting that the House voted to continue funding the Libyan operation. This was a misread of the House vote. The bill, had it passed, would cut funding for some US operations in Libya, but not all – allowing the refueling of bombers, identification and selection of targets, guidance of munitions, logistical support and operational planning to continue.
It left congressmen and women in a bind: cut some funding, but support the continuation of an unauthorized war, or vote against any continuation whatsoever? While a House majority voted against this bill because it was too weak, failed to cut off all funds, or implicitly authorized the intervention, some congressmen and women supported it, concerned that press would interpret "no" votes as a desire to keep funding the war. The "nays" had it, ending debate until the Defense Appropriations bill comes up next week, wherein Representative Dennis Kucinich will offer his amendment to prohibit funds from being used to fund US military operations in Libya. A far clearer mandate for Congress to consider, this will ultimately test congressional mettle.
And here lies the rub. Even if the House votes to prohibit funding of Libya operations, this does little to address both the political and moral imperatives implicated by the Libya invasion. As House members get mired in the minutiae of amendments, who will illuminate the issues that lie at the heart of the matter, which, left unaddressed, are doomed to be repeated in the future?
Unless Washington finds consensus on where and how we apply the War Powers Resolution or when and how we pursue R2P, we could easily witness similar votes related to Syria, Yemen or Pakistan. Given that we ignored R2P imperatives in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Sudan – none of which come close to Libya's known oil reserves, which are second only to Saudi Arabia – Washington must decide whether it is going to apply a moral injunction consistently, or whether national interests will dictate civilian protection.
If it is the latter, then say so. Own up to the fact that the US is now engaged in hostile actions in at least five Muslim countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya. Own up to the fact that War Powers legislation, created to ensure accountability between the executive and legislative branches, is being discursively disregarded and disemboweled. And own up to the fact that the "responsibility to protect" is increasingly about protecting economic interests, and not primarily civilian innocents.