Another War of Jenkins' Ear

Resist The Pointless

No One Said This Was Optimal

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Greg Sargant quotes Obama en route to drawing a silly conclusion:

Rather, the more important part of Obama’s 2007 quote is this one:

“In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.”

Putting aside the legal questions here, Obama is acting in violation of the lessons he once took from history. Along these lines, Dem Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, who added his voice to the criticism of Obama’s decision, made an important point today. Larson noted that even if Obama technically is in compliance with the War Powers Resolution, he is violating its spirit: “To insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”

Obama very well may have had his reasons for not consulting Congress as extensively as he might have — time was of the essence; the president expects this to be wrapped up quickly; he doesn’t envision this as a full-scale war; etc. But it’s very obvious that Obama’s approach is at odds with his own instincts and his own reading of history, at least as it stood when he was the reader and other presidents were the lead actors.

I would certainly say that the current debate (outside of this post) proves that it’s better to have the informed consent of Congress too! Obama is getting pilloried for his actions, and he’s not receiving the bump Presidents normally do from using military action.

But saying that it makes Obama “in violation of the lessons he once took from history” is over the top and incorrect. It implies a Manichean view of history – either you follow the best possible procedure or you are in violation. That’s an incorrect method of appraising Presidential action. Using an extreme example, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War without prior Congressional authorization in a way that was almost certainly unconstitutional. But facts on the ground demanded it, Congress later ratified it, and in the end historians have almost universally hailed the move.  Now, this is far less serious a situation than that. But there’s a lot of precedence to Presidents being forced to take actions that might be objectively bad, but are necessary given the circumstances. There’s even precedence for it going too far (the Steel Seizure case). In short, Obama didn’t violate a lesson of history. He took an action that he felt was the best course of action but was in an ideal world sub-optimal.

He simply felt the costs of getting authorization subsequently (while real) were more palatable to him than the costs of waiting – which Sargant makes an informed guess at.

This is just a continuation of people who want to make some sort of philosophical or legal point against the intervention in Libya because they don’t know enough of the facts on the ground to criticize it on the merits. And that is a result of a stunning lack of transparency coming from the White House. The easiest way to stop these sorts of silly arguments would be for reputed major proponents such as Amb. Rice, Sec. Clinton, and Samantha Power to do rounds on talk shows instead of the the military. I’ve seen them all on talk shows previously, they communicate well. Get them out there!

On a side note, Larson’s comment of the spirit of the War Powers Resolution is hogwash: It was passed over a veto in the wake of a President lying the Congress into war and every President since has felt it partially unconstitutional. And as a matter of practice since it was passed, Congress has not always had prior consent to actions. I don’t think what’s even legal in the law itself is clear, much less that there’s uncontested “spirit” which just so happens to contradict the plain text that gives a President 60 days.)

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