In the wake of President Obama's decision to go to war in Libya without Congressional authorization or debate, there's a heightened level of public and media cynicism about the ability of any Congress to constrain any administration on warmaking in any way whatsoever.
This is dangerous. It's important for Congress to assert its war powers: important to prevent the US from being sucked into another quagmire, important to build pressure for a negotiated resolution in Libya by shutting down the possibility of further military escalation, important for future efforts to prevent and limit US wars, that Congress act affirmatively to impose limits.
Unfortunately, the approach of the administration has limited Congress' options. Apparently the administration does not intend to respect the limits Congress enacted in the War Powers Resolution. Thus, although every measure pursued by members of Congress helps in some way to limit the administration by adding political pressure, there is a specific need for measures that can attract majority support: the administration cannot ignore action by the majority that has the force of law.
Michigan Rep. John Conyers has put forward an initiative that has a very strong claim to majority support. Conyers plans to introduce an amendment to the next government funding bill – the Continuing Resolution – that would prevent appropriated funds from being used to fund any type of ground troop presence on Libyan territory. Together with Representatives Honda, Stark, and Woolsey, Representative Conyers is circulating a letter to his colleagues in support of this amendment.
This position has strong majority support from Americans. Seven out of ten Americans oppose the use of US ground troops in Libya, according to a CNN poll. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that by a margin of 61-30, voters say regime change in Libya is not worth having American troops “fight and possibly die” for.
Some will say: this measure is not necessary because the president has promised not to put US ground troops in Libya, and Defense Secretary Gates has stated his firm opposition. Indeed, it is extremely unlikely that the administration will try to put ground troops in Libya tomorrow. But there is a saying in Washington: “It's always too early, until it's too late.” If we get to the fork in the road where putting ground troops in is a live proposition politically, it may be too late for Congress to stop it. The administration was publicly against a “no fly zone,” before it was in favor of something much more aggressive. That's why it's important to lay down the barrier now.
And it's far from inconceivable that we could find ourselves at this fork in the road in the future, because many do not believe that the goal of forced regime change in Libya – as opposed to negotiated regime change – can be accomplished without ground troops.
The fact that President Obama has pledged not to introduce ground troops is part of what makes this prohibition a live proposition. Members of Congress can say: “We're not opposing the president; we're enacting his promise into law.” This is a time-honored Congressional strategy for trying to constrain the administration on warmaking: enact its promises into law. This was a strategy that Congress used to constrain the Bush administration during the Iraq war.
This is especially important now, given that some of the debate about the Libya war has taken on a partisan character, in the sense that what some people have said seems to be determined more by what team they are playing for rather than any attachment to underlying issues. Thus, it's important that initiatives to constrain US military involvement be bipartisan in order to be successful.
The passage of such a measure will have immediate, practical, positive effects. There is currently a mismatch between the maximalist political rhetoric of some in the West and what Western publics are willing to put into Libya militarily. By signaling clearly that there is a firm limit to US military involvement, the passage of Conyers' amendment will expand political space for a negotiated resolution to the conflict.
You can ask your representative to support this initiative here.
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