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War powers debate hints at new isolationism
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War powers debate hints at new isolationism

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

In November 1973, in the heat of the Viet Nam War and in the midst of the imploding Watergate scandal, the U. S. Congress overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto of the War Powers Act. At the time many lawyers and legal scholars questioned the constitutionality of the law. Leaving aside the anti-war and anti-Nixon politics which underlay Congress’ action, these experts asked whether this law was either redundant or superfluous, in that the Constitution already stated the legal mechanics of going to war; or was a direct undermining of a president’s power as commander-in-chief.

Pending a successful legal challenge in the federal courts or congressional repeal, this basically bad—and according to some dangerous—law remains on the books. That is certainly one of the reasons that the House of Representatives and President Obama had such a serious and complicated showdown last week over continued U.S. participation and funding of the NATO Libyan campaign.

When presidents seek to circumvent the War Powers Act, they request that Congress pass a resolution “authorizing the President to use force” as necessary to address a specific geopolitical problem. Presidents did this during the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and other military engagements. In the case of Libya, President Obama opted not to pursue this route. He argued that the U.S. role in the Libya campaign did not constitute an “engagement” as defined by the law.

Underlying this legal debate are two other factors: one political and one ideological. Both of them might well be even more important in the long run than the legal and constitutional deliberations which are probably too arcane for most Americans.

House Republicans, who have a recent history of supporting international military confrontations, used this issue to attack the President. Many GOP members may not support the law itself, but wanted to make an issue of President Obama’s perceived circumvention of the law. Some do not support the U.S. expanding its military efforts to include Libya. And others oppose the president because they want to reduce all international interventions involving the U.S., bring U.S. troops home more quickly, and focus on domestic needs.

These political maneuvers demonstrated the extent to which the Republican controlled House was prepared to conduct political mischief rather than constructive engagement in the substantive debate.

More disturbing however, was the national mood that this debate reflected. Here was a House of Representatives that permitted the nation to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan for 10 years without increasing revenues to pay for it, and now refuses to support the NATO effort in Libya because of budgetary considerations or a lack of geopolitical purpose for the United States.

This latter point raises perhaps the most serious long-term implication beyond the legal/constitutional nit-picking. There clearly appears to be a linkage in some circles between the lack of interest in supporting U.S. involvement in Libya and the call for significant budgetary cuts. Many of those who have been the leading voices in favor of spending reductions are also leading the opposition to expanding U.S. international involvements, even if they are justified to be within the U.S.’s global interest.

If indeed the House is becoming more predisposed to supporting an isolationist direction for U.S. international politics, then these votes on U.S. participation in the NATO engagement in Libya may well be the clarion call to a new America First movement. Such a direction would have huge implications not only for the current international crisis, but for any potential role for the U.S. in addressing future confrontations and conflagrations.

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