Loose Canons

Charlie Foxtrot McCain

Why are Republicans allowing him to speak for them on Libya?

By 6.20.11

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Liberals, by their nature, can't be overtly hostile to anyone, nor can they admit their inner feelings of anger, hatred or warlike intent. They sublimate their hostility in legislation and court decrees which, too, are defined to exclude hostile intent. Which explains why President Obama has chosen to engage in a Clintonian parsing of terms. This time, it's not a question of what the meaning of "is" is: it's a question of how you can bomb and strafe people without engaging in "hostilities."

When President Obama began "Operation Odyssey Dawn" in March, Republican reactions ranged from Newt Gingrich's confusion to John McCain's fevered desire to remove Gaddafi from power. Only a few muted voices opposed it on the grounds that we had no national interest at stake.

Since then, the swabbies have fired about 150 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan targets and various American fly-guys have flown hundreds of combat missions. The announced mission was to bomb and strafe Gaddafi's forces to protect the Libyan rebels and civilians. The unofficial mission, stated by Obama, was to topple Gaddafi's regime. Many missions have apparently been flown with the objective of killing the Libyan dictator.

Last week came word that our constitutional law professor turned president overruled two White House lawyers to reach his legal opinion that we are not engaged in "hostilities," so the 1973 War Powers Resolution is inapplicable and Congress is entitled to no voice in the matter of U.S. intervention in Libya.

Under the War Powers Resolution, any president who commits U.S. forces to combat must obtain congressional permission to continue the action after sixty days have passed. The Resolution says it applies to "the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and to the continued use of such forces in hostilities or in such situations."

Last week, Obama told Congress to take its War Powers Resolution and shove it because the aforementioned Resolution applied only to "hostilities" and, in his legal opinion, we were not engaged in hostilities in Libya because there were no U.S. troops on the ground there.

I do claim some expertise in constitutional law, and I have a different opinion. Unless the 150-odd Tomahawk missiles we've fired into Libya were launched by accident, and all of our fly-guys mistook Libya for a new environmentally approved practice firing range, anyone on the receiving end of the ordnance would reasonably conclude that they had experienced a hostile act which, in fact, comprised an act of war. And those people would be correct.

Whether or not it is constitutional, of which there is considerable doubt, Obama's parsing of the War Powers Resolution's terms stands on Clinton's foundation. I'm not saying that launching a Tomahawk missile is the wartime equivalent of oral sex, but I do insist that firing a missile or dropping a bomb is an act of war regardless of whether the people on either end of the act are wearing Kevlar or condoms.

From almost all congressional Democrats, reactions are strictly partisan. They agree, as did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that no congressional authorization for Libya is necessary. Reid's war expertise was established in April 2007 when he declared the war in Iraq already lost. Now, with Obama's open-ended commitment to the Libya operation passing sixty days, Reid told Jim Lehrer last Friday that "we have no troops on the ground there, and this thing's going to be over before you know it anyway," so he believes no war powers resolution is necessary.

But "before you know it" translates into, "before Republican opposition focuses the media on it." If only the reactions from congressional Republicans were more rational and honest.

House Speaker John Boehner, playing Oliver Twist, begged the president for more workhouse gruel two weeks ago, asking for answers to some semi-tough questions on Libya. But it fell to Sen. John McCain to take the most bizarre stance, attacking his fellow Republicans for questioning the Libya operation.

In last Monday's Republican candidates' debate, some few of the presidential wannabes managed to assert the right ideas on Libya and Afghanistan. Rep. Michele Bachmann -- smarter and tougher than guys such as T-Paw -- stated what should be obvious: that we have no national interest in Libya and for that reason we shouldn't be engaged in military action there. (Even Mitt Romney got it right, more or less.)

In response, McCain took Bachmann and the others to task, accusing them in a Senate floor speech of being isolationists. He reiterated that charge on the Sunday talk shows yesterday, going further to say that those opposing the Libya operation may be calculating on the basis of politics rather than national interest.

And McCain upped the ante: despite the fact that the president has told Congress to butt out of Libya, McCain said that he and Vichy John Kerry were going to introduce a Senate resolution authorizing continued war -- er, kinetic military action -- in and over Libya.

This is classic McCain: arrogating to himself the leadership of the Republican Party which he led to disastrous defeat in 2008. He is wrong both politically and substantively. The more he projects himself in this role with this position, the harder it is for conservative candidates to make their mark.

Politically, McCain sees no difference between the Libyan operation and the Bush/Obama surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there is no gap between Republicans and Obama on these issues, there is no hope that national security issues can be a major factor in next year's election. If Republicans don't -- loudly and consistently -- tell the American voters that Obama is wrong on all fronts, that in continuing nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, in intervening in Libya where we have no national interest, they cannot convince the voters that they will win the war against radical Islam that Obama is in the process of losing.

Substantively, McCain is comprehensively wrong on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in the June 7 Washington Post, nation-building in Afghanistan "ran up against the irony that the Afghan nation comes into being primarily in opposition to occupying forces. When foreign forces are withdrawn, Afghan politics revert to a contest over territory and population by various essentially tribal groups. In our national debate, the inconclusive effort was blamed on the diversion of resources to Iraq rather than on its inherent implausibility."

McCain's 2008 campaign was doomed from the start by his own arrogance and the burdens left behind by George Bush. Republicans cannot win in 2012 if they allow themselves to be burdened by McCain's commitment to neoconservative neocolonialism.

Which of the Republicans will take on McCain's arrogant sponsorship of a congressional resolution to approve Obama's intervention in Libya?

This is a chance to assert leadership of the party, to plant a stake in the ground for 2012. Some candidate should, right now, say that McCain is dangerously wrong and that he (or she) will not go into the race hobbled by McCain, dedicated to nation-building and to using armed force where no American interest is at stake.

If no candidate does that, the eventual nominee will be as hobbled by McCain -- and the ghost of George Bush's presidency -- as McCain's was, and with the same result. They will lose.

To earn the leader's position next year, candidates need to pick useful fights with the president and with the few Republicans who are as wrong as McCain. By doing so, they can assert leadership and gain greater political standing. Leadership means taking hard decisions and persuading others to follow. Of the people on stage last Monday, only Michele Bachmann gave evidence of that quality of character.

This week presents an opportunity for a presidential aspirant to pick a useful fight -- with Obama and McCain -- on Libya. I despond that none will seize it.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.