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In terms of the 2012 presidential election, President Barack Obama’s lawyers pushed him into a high-risk/low-reward equation. By stiff-arming Congress on the War Powers Act, the president gave his opponents a tremendous opportunity. Obama’s posture, as a political matter, has put him at risk to be the sole owner of any negative outcome in Libya without there being an equal reward for any positive result.
The electorate will judge Libya by one standard: Is the current situation better for American interests? While the future is unknowable, the answer is far more likely to be either no or unclear, than a triumphant yes.
Given the volatile nature of much of the Middle East, no matter what happens in Libya, it is difficult to imagine a situation that would enhance the president’s stature. Voters won’t distinguish Libya from the rest of the region. If the situation in the region is considered problematic for American interests — the historical norm — then the Libyan intervention is likely to be seen as either a failure or a question mark. Either view works to the Republicans’ advantage at election time.
This raises a fundamental political question: Why is the White House so willing to assume all the downside risk for what, on a game theory basis, calculates to a limited probable upside?
The fact that presidents since Harry Truman have rewritten the constitutional provision on how war is to be declared doesn’t provide an answer — it rather begs the question. As President George W. Bush showed, a chief executive can still seek Congressional approval, even while claiming — wrongly, we believe — that his constitutional power didn’t require it. This approach allowed the Texan to protect his view of the president’s authority while at the same time bringing Congress on board to help share the burdens of military conflict.
Obama’s posture toward Libyan legalism has largely let Republicans off the proverbial political hook. In fact, the president handed the opposition an opportunity to give him a huge rebuke from the floor of the House.
The average swing voter believes a bipartisan approach to Libya and similar conflicts is preferable. With Republicans insisting on following the War Powers Act — which in our view is still less than the Constitution requires — and the White House refusing, a legally suspect situation has become even worse as a political matter. An unnecessary legal strategy that risks voter anger makes no practical sense.
The GOP-led refusal to authorize the military action in Libya marks Republicans as the bipartisan, reasonable side of the argument. While the president is now on the defensive, his opponents can claim they are the true defenders of the Constitution.
We ask of the president’s strategy: For what purpose? Agreeing to abide by the War Powers Act doesn’t weaken the presidency, as Bush showed. It doesn’t set a precedent since it can always be distinguished in a future circumstance. It doesn’t limit the president’s options should the situation require an immediate response. In sum, the president has gained no advantage by his approach to Libya.
But Obama does set himself up to reap a lot of disadvantages. As a legal matter, if the military situation in Libya goes sour, then the president will be forced to abide by the War Powers Act the next time or face a big backlash.
As for the politics, Obama has put himself and his party at risk of being seen as insisting unilaterally on a policy that makes things worse or at least costs huge sums of money for no discernible positive result.
Politically speaking, Libya can’t be divorced from the Middle East, a volatile region now more politically dangerous than normal. It is far too risky for Democrats to be seen by the public as the sole owners of the outcome. The better strategy, both for the party and the country, was to invite Congress to be a full partner, assuming the risks and sharing in the rewards, as appropriate.
Instead, the White House seemed determined to risk its future over an uncertain outcome in a country with little record of providing positive results for America. With all due respect to the White House lawyers, they have badly served this president, who was obligated, in our view, to have sought Congressional authorization in February for the military action in Libya.
Paul Goldman is former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Mark J. Rozell is professor of public policy at George Mason University.