I know Aesop’s fable is about a wise lion who, tickled at the idea of a mouse helping him, let the mouse escape his hungry roar. In exchange, when the lion found itself in need, the mouse saved its life. Unfortunately, our White House lion is far from wise. Our lion’s political calculations smack me of being just calculations. Obama’s decisions seem the reaction to irritations from invisible friends with invisible minds. And then, the war in Libya happened, and things immediately change. But let’s let history inform us.
The United States has the benefit of being a great military power, and as the biggest kid in the playground, the U.S. President chooses our fights. However, even the bully has a relative or neighbor watching over his actions. In this case, Congress has increasingly chosen to oversee its bellicose kid’s actions, especially following World War II. There are exceptions, such as when the kid attacks people his entire neighborhood dislikes. Such bullying went for years without any blinking when Truman did it in 1950 in Korea, Kennedy did it in 1963 in Cuba, Johnson did it later in the 60’s in Vietnam, and when finally, Nixon did it in Cambodia in 1970. But, then things became a bit more complicated as clearly disliking folks became too vaguely defined. Congress wagged its finger. It refused to pay for expanding the ground combat to Laos and Thailand. However, wagging the finger does not work even in school. Nixon expanded the war to Cambodia.
So finally, in 1973, Congress decided to legislate the war powers of all future presidents in what has been known as the War Powers Resolutions: Pub. L. No. 93-148, 87 Stat. 555 (1973) (codified at 50 U.S.C. §§ 1541-1548 (2006)).The statute requires the President to withdraw armed forces from hostilities within ninety days if Congress has not approved such engagement within that time frame.
Such paternalistic overseeing did not go unchallenged. For instance, the Ford administration had the congressional restriction limited to “combat activities” and “hostilities,” making it possible for him and future presidents to use military forces for humanitarian purposes, such as evacuating Americans and other non-US civilians from our South-Vietnam quagmire. Additionally, the Reagan administration successfully fought against congressional limitation of the U.S. war involvement. Worse from the point of view of the bullied victims, Reagan received preclusive power (complete control) over how to conduct military actions, including covert operations. Furthermore, disclosing those operations to Congress became a matter of presidential discretion. Nevertheless, the decorum was respected: the kid was supposed to give the neighbor the illusion of adult supervision (or vice versa).
There is no fable about the neighbors who chose to turn their back on the playground instead of keeping an eye on the bully, only to wake up one day and find the neighborhood burnt down. Our Congress chose to be this benevolent neighbor in times propitious for bullying, when it passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force, Pub. L. No. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224, 224 (2001), in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
And now, ten years later, we are in Libya. Rufus Davis wrote about it on April 11. But at that time no one was paying attention. These days, while Democrats keep mum, some Republicans have found Libya on the map. House Speaker John Boehner, who is not known for either his wisdom or common sense, had nonetheless said that the House (one of our two congressional chambers) would vote on limiting the U.S. military role in the Libyan combat. Boehner’s democratic leadership comes despite the fact that Obama had not sought such congressional support, nor authorization for his ongoing war under the guise that our bombings are humanitarian and not “hostilities.” Boehner described Obama’s actions and words as defying “rational thought.” Indeed, they do. On this path, through his actions, Obama will help define an opposition, and perhaps a contender.
And this is where I end my new fable. This is how our lion could lose his presidency though the Republicans have no human contender. Only ghosts. Of wisdom past.