Is America at War in Libya?

A U.S. warship launches a missile in support of NATO operations in Libya.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday issued a harsh rebuke of the Obama administration by refusing to authorize the Libya intervention (by a vote of 295-123), but it also voted down a resolution that would have cut off funding for military operations in Libya.  Interestingly, a closer analysis of this vote shows that a majority of House members favor cutting off funds, but many anti-war members (particularly Democrats) voted against the defunding resolution because it didn’t go far enough, and would have allowed support activities such as surveillance and refueling.

As discussed previously in this blog, many members of Congress charge that Obama has flouted the 1973 War Powers Act by launching military operations in Libya without receiving Congressional authorization.  The Obama administration’s response it that its limited support functions in Libya do not constitute the type of hostilities that would require Congressional authorization.  These legal arguments are detailed here.  Many members of Congress and other critics aren’t buying this logic; they say we are obviously at war and Obama’s lawyers are purposely evading the truth to escape accountability.  In a blog post titled “Obama, we’re at war. Stop insulting us,” Stephen Walt compares America’s actions to the dictionary definition of war, and concludes:

“By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn’t being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality.”

This dispute highlights the ways in which democratic leaders must deal with checks and balances on their war-making powers, as democratic peace theory contends, albeit in the context of a presidential system that frequently gives the U.S. president greater decision-making authority than prime ministers enjoy in parliamentary systems.  The Libya case also illustrates how factors at multiple levels of analysis can influence policymaking.  Although realists (particularly neorealists) emphasize constraints and opportunities at the international system level and downplay variables that differentiate states and individuals, the Libya intervention shows that individuals and domestic political institutions matter.  Not only was the initial intervention driven by the beliefs of Obama and his top advisers, but a recent story by Josh Rogin suggests that the administration’s failure to handle the politics of Congressional authorization with anything approaching deftness can be attributed to the physical exhaustion of top officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  The fact that Congress has the power to cut off funds for the Libya mission (and, according to some observers, could finally do so through an amendment to a Pentagon appropriations bill after the Fourth of July) demonstrates that the structure of domestic political institutions can have a powerful impact on countries’ foreign policy behavior.

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