Libya: U.S. Lawmakers Bare their Teeth at Obama – An Analysis by Dr Michael J.K. Bokor

The writer, Dr Michael J.K. Bokor
The BBC’s headline says it all: “House of Representatives votes against US Libya role”; and the news report itself explains matters beyond all reasonable doubts that Barack Obama’s political immaturity in the handling of the US’ involvement in the Libyan crisis is part of what will constitute a major hurdle for him as he seeks re-election next year.

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According to the BBC report (June 24, 2011), “The US House has refused to give President Barack Obama authority to continue US participation in the NATO-led operation in Libya, but rejected a bid to cut off money for the conflict.”

The two different resolutions voted on today were about whether to set a time limit for the US’ participation in the military campaign, and whether to cut funding for the mission.

Although analysts say the Republican-led vote against approving the conflict is largely a symbolic political move, it has its own implications for Obama’s political standing. The criticisms being levelled against him for violating the 1973 War Powers Act are not based on mere spite for him from his political opponents.

They reflect the worries among his own Democratic Party lawmakers too; and 70 of those voting “No” on the resolution concerning the US’ involvement in the NATO-led operations were Democrats. Their stance reflects anger against Obama’s manner of handling matters. Certainly, this stance is an embarrassment to him. Its full implications may not be felt immediately but will gradually add up to others to erode confidence in him as events unfold. For now, we will regard the House’s attitude as a slight!

It is not surprising that the vote to cut funding for some aspects of the military mission was rejected overwhelmingly. Some of the 89 Republicans who voted “No” also thought that the resolution wasn’t tough enough. They wanted to cut all funding and end US participation in the Libya operation. But they didn’t have their way.

Of course, the explanation had long been given that the US cannot afford to disengage from the military campaign in Libya at this stage, having been deeply involved in its planning and leading the initial airstrikes before handing over responsibilities to NATO and receding to the background to provide only “technical assistance” to sustain the military campaign. That the lawmakers voted against the resolution is a matter of course because anything to the contrary might suggest many things about the US.

One major conclusion to be drawn might be that the US has betrayed its European allies and weakened NATO. Thus, the lawmakers were “wary of looking like they don’t support American troops,” as observed by the BBC’s state department correspondent, Kim Ghattas. This aspect of the voting that took place in Congress is, therefore, moot.

But it raises an important political consideration which suggests that Obama’s political opponents still have something to latch on to in their attempt to undermine him. They will definitely not let the dust settle on the matter all too soon.

The under-currents of today’s happenings in the House of Representatives are strong. Obama is walking on a political quicksand and risks being sucked up. His attitude to Congress concerning the War Powers Act (1973) is the subject of intense public debate, much of which doesn’t favour him. He is being blamed for violating a constitutional provision and divesting Congress of its legitimate responsibility.

If there is one thing that citizens of the US uphold, it is their Constitution. Despite their different political colorations, they will quickly come together in defence of this Constitution, which they regard as sacrosanct and the bastion of their democracy. They will do all they can to defend it as it is.

By insisting that he doesn’t need any Congressional assent to maintain the US’ participation in the military campaign in Libya—despite the glaring impudence of that stance—Obama is merely engaging in sophistry that will not let him off the hook.

He has indeed carried his authority too far and given his critics the opportunity to take him on. They have accused him of giving a narrow interpretation to the definition of “hostilities” as provided for in the 1973 War Powers Resolution and acted in violation of the Constitution which gives Congress the power to declare war.

Obama’s insistence on using his Executive powers in this case will come back to haunt him. Now that Congress feels embittered at the usurpation of its constitutional responsibility, it will definitely look for other means to make the going tough for him. Today’s voting exercise is just an inkling.

For Obama, this head-on confrontation with Congress is the first major bump that he has run into and he appears not to be coming out unscathed. If we add the controversy over the budget negotiations to this issue, we can tell where he is heading.

Although he may be somewhat relieved that the House didn’t vote to de-fund the military mission or to set a specific timetable for the US’ participation in it, his respite may not be without hiccups. There are other worries to make him sit up if he wants to claw back some goodwill from Congress and the citizenry.

The sluggish growth of the economy and increasing rate of unemployment are major issues bothering the citizens. The fact that the US has spread itself too thin on the globe, engaged in combat situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, is a major problem that bothers the citizens.

Failure to handle properly the US’ participation in the military campaign in Libya could be a blight on Obama’s political fortunes. Gaddafi may be considered a pariah by many Americans but it doesn’t mean that in trying to help his opponents deal with him, the US President should trample on what is constitutionally mandated as falling within the purview of the Legislature.

The beauty of the US’ democracy is the reverence for the principles of checks and balances, which Obama’s circumvention of the War Powers Act has breached, although he has claimed not to be doing any such thing. He will do himself a world of good if he treads cautiously.

Political maturity calls for better ways to handle this matter and he will be wise if he swallows his so-called pride as a constitutional lawyer to reach out to Congress in an effort to regularize matters before the situation worsens any further.

Even if the two separate votes cast today haven’t succeeded in divesting him of the powers that he has exercised to insert the US in the military campaign in Libya, they serve as a warning to him that Congress knows its purview and will not allow him to encroach on it. It is a warning that he must heed for his own good.

If his intention is to prove his critics wrong that he can’t take any firm and decisive action in matters of war, he should know how to do so and not work at cross-purposes with those whose backing he needs to succeed. He will serve a better cause if he works within laid-down parameters.

As the situation stands now, it is clear that he has set himself on a collision course with the lawmakers and should hasten slowly, lest he locks horns with those whose cooperation he needs to implement his agenda of “Change” for the country and its citizens. As of now, he seems to be leaping without first pausing to look. The truth is that he needs more than usurping Congress’ powers to push the US’ into the military campaign in Libya to prove his worth. I hope he will learn useful lessons from today’s events.