The Obama administration’s ongoing airstrikes against the Islamist group ISIL in Iraq are part of a troubling pattern of military action initiated unilaterally by the executive branch without recourse to Congress — the only branch of government that our Constitution gives the power “to declare war.”
What began as a humanitarian mission to defend besieged Yazidi refugees has quickly evolved into what President Obama called “part of a long-term project.” Soon after the end of the siege on Mount Sinjar, U.S. airstrikes were helping Kurdish and Iraqi forces retake the Mosul dam, the administration was hinting that it might send planes over the Syrian border, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry tweeted that ISIL “must be destroyed/will be crushed.”
This is not the first time President Obama has begun an open-ended military campaign in the name of humanitarian relief, without congressional authorization. If recent history is any indication, our latest intervention will go beyond its original scope but not far enough to effect lasting improvements in the region.
Like America’s new “long-term project” in Iraq, the goals of our intervention in the Libyan civil war when it began in March 2011 were ill-defined. Although NATO justified its initial engagement as necessary to prevent a massacre of civilian rebels by loyalist forces, the objectives of the mission quickly expanded. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton surprised many when she declared of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi that “we hope he can be captured or killed soon,” even though there was no plan in place for his replacement.
In the end, what started out as a lifesaving mission probably prolonged Libya’s civil war and increased its death toll — all for a regime change of dubious geopolitical benefit to the United States. Yes, Gadhafi was a devil, but at least he was a devil we knew. Post-Gadhafi Libya is an out-of-control haven for terrorists, drug smugglers and weapons smugglers. Earlier this month, the new Libyan parliament called for further international military intervention to protect civilians from fighting between rival militias. But by that time the U.S. had long since washed its hands of the mess.
Libyans were not the only casualties of NATO’s intervention in Libya. After Gadhafi was killed, the resulting power vacuum was filled by rival factions, including the newly formed political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, stoking anti-American sentiment. Partly because the U.S. was in denial about the war it had just prosecuted, we failed to protect our civilians on the ground. On Sept. 11, 2012, Islamic militants attacked the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens and three other Americans.
How would circumstances have been better if Mr. Obama had asked Congress to authorize military force in Libya? For one thing, it would have forced the administration to articulate its goals at the outset. It would have given Congress a say about the scope of American military involvement — as the framers intended. And it would have given the American people a yardstick by which to measure the eventual political, economic and human costs of the military campaign. Most importantly, a frank inter-branch dialogue about our involvement in Libya would have encouraged realistic post-conflict planning, and helped to avoid the ensuing chaos.
Instead, the president acted without any input from Congress — even after the 60-day deadline imposed by the War Powers Act. The administration insisted the United States was not engaged in “hostilities” at that point — never mind that our drones were still firing missiles at Libyan targets and our troops were supporting the NATO force policing a no-fly zone above the country. With Congress out of the picture, the only limit on the scope of the Libya mission was a U.N. Security Counsel resolution. And because we were intent on downplaying our involvement in the conflict, the U.S. abdicated at the first opportunity, leaving Libya embroiled in a civil war that threatens regional chaos for the foreseeable future.
It is too late for Libya, but there is still time for Congress to set our military intervention in Iraq on a more productive course. Our Constitution wisely divides responsibility for making war between Congress and the commander in chief. President Obama should ask Congress to authorize continued airstrikes in Iraq, and Congress should define the endgame of the military action it approves.
• C. Boyden Gray has served as White House counsel, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, special envoy for Eurasian energy and special envoy for European Union affairs. “Arbitrary and Capricious” runs monthly.