First of all, let’s agree on one important point: We are at war in Libya. All the niceties and all the casuistry aside, we are spending $100 million a day bombing and equipping and sending ground troops (yes, we are, folks–2500 Marines so far); enough to have already wiped out the Obama “stimulus” and put us back where we were economically in roughly July 2008. The same old tired reasons are given that we have heard ever since Korea, and the results will be the same.
I don’t want to get into all that, however. This is really a response to the dispute between Brad Birzer and Steve Hollingshead over the powers of the President to have so involved us in one more place without a declaration of war or even specific Congressional authorization. It’s an issue that is bigger than either of them have yet admitted, it goes to the heart of the Presidency, and it is out of control.The best book yet written on the office is Forrest McDonald’s The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (University Press of Kentucky, 1994). I refer to it as the framework of ideas that encourages us to understand what “Commander-in-Chief” might mean, and how it relates to the current situation in the African desert.
Forrest makes the important point that those who argued against the adoption of the Constitution almost always included the great potential danger of a commander-in-chief who could use that exact concept to abrogate the liberties the document was supposedly there to protect. It didn’t happen right away, but Jefferson and Madison set the precedents for Presidential interventionism that has never had many intervals between its use. Consider this remarkable fact: “On five occasions Congress declared war [the last time was 1941]…whereas American fighting men were sent to fight in foreign climes on more than 200 occasions.” We can add five or six more since that was written. Overall, in undeclared wars we have killed over two million enemies and have lost at least 100,000 American lives. The wars have all been justified one way or another, despite some sticky times such as the passage of the War Powers Act of 1973, which (and this is my editorial comment, not McDonald’s) has made no difference whatsoever in the President’s ability to act. By the way, these undeclared wars have been utterly bipartisan. First conclusion, then: President Obama is acting in Libya exactly as at least 20 other Presidents acted. Given that great tradition, he is unlikely to have to answer for what many of us think are serious violations of our republican heritage.
Forrest also points out that the commander-in-chief powers are hardly separable by now from the President’s war powers, on which the Constitution is inexplicit. Beginning with Lincoln, reaching a crescendo with FDR (who had almost literal dictatorial powers during World War II), and still operative, the Constitution means very, very little under the emergencies created by both declared and undeclared wars.
He tells the priceless story about Lyndon Johnson taking a wrong turn to walk toward Air Force One, and a young soldier in the escort saying, “Sir, Mr. President, your plane is over there,” to which LBJ replied, “Son, I want to tell you something–just so you never forget….All of them–those over there and those over here–are my planes.” Well, a couple of hundred of President Obama’s million-dollar Tomahawk missiles–and they are all his–have gone into Libya so far.
We will get no where arguing the constitutional meaning of Commander-in-Chief, however. That must be dealt with by legislative means or with a constitutional amendment. The short term response to this immoral, imprudent, expensive war is to vote against anybody from any party who gives even a nod of approval. And be ready for the War Party to call you an “isolationist.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.