What's going on; What's at stake

By EDITORIAL  |  May 18, 2011

Two months and 7000-plus air strikes into its Libyan intervention, NATO is running out of straightforward combat targets and is expanding its hit list to include infrastructure, communications networks, and command and control centers. 

The Libyan insurrection, then, has morphed into a full-scale civil war. The publically proclaimed goal of shielding civilians from the reprisals of Muammar Qaddafi may still be on the books, but it has been superseded by regime change.

The ghosts of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden must be haunting Qaddafi. The former was hanged after a trial, and the later shot to death by US Navy Seals.

Now that the International Criminal Court is perusing Qaddafi, his son, and brother-in-law for crimes against humanity, the Libyan strongman seems to face four possible fates: death by bombing, death or imprisonment after capture, exile, or holding on to power in a partitioned country after a negotiated truce.

At the moment, calculating the odds of any outcome is dicey. It is clear, however, that President Barack Obama's assurance that action in Libya would last "days, not weeks" was optimistically misleading.

The Phoenix went to press the day before Obama was scheduled to explain his take on the Arab Spring that is reshaping world affairs. But in the days leading up to Obama's national address, the White House made it clear that American support and involvement in the NATO operation would — if necessary — continue for months.

This is troubling. Obama has successfully played a slick and shrewd game of bait and switch.

Working around the margins of the War Powers Act — which is intended to give the commander in chief the tools to respond to immediate military danger — Obama is using NATO as a proxy.

Let's not forget that, while Europeans are flying the jets and launching the missiles, they are being commanded by James G. Stavridis, the American who is NATO's Supreme Allied Commander.

Without United States intelligence and logistical support, the NATO intervention would be a far more questionable enterprise. Even at that, it is unclear by what measure success is to be calculated.

Congress could complicate Obama's Libyan intervention any time it chooses. Obama will no doubt have bought himself time and space with his speech on Thursday.

But Congress shows next to no inclination to call Obama to task for committing military might and energy without its approval. Congress has lost the power to police undeclared wars, largely because it is too cowardly to do so.

Debate over the federal budget and deficit is the reason Congress gives for shirking its constitutional responsibilities.

Congress, it seems, just cannot chew gum and walk at the same time.

Democratic congressman Michael Capuano of Somerville is one of only a handful of Democrats willing to hold his party's president to the same constitutional standards that would theoretically be applied to Republicans.

In this, Capuano is working in the long shadow still cast by the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who fought to limit the war-making powers of White House, no matter who its occupant was.

There is something to be said for Obama's oblique maneuvering to involve the US in Libya. While it is constitutionally dubious, it is subject to political correction should Congress wake up and take an interest.

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Related: Taking the long view, Letters to the Boston editor, May 27, 2011, Libya: Why Obama is right, More more >
  Topics: The Editorial Page , Libya, NATO, International Criminal Court,  More more >
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