The “Bush-Obama” View of Warfare

Joe Scarborough rightly tags a particularly absurd nascent media narrative: that the GOP’s opposition to President Obama’s Libya intervention constitutes “isolationism.” It doesn’t. First, to ascribe a particular ideological label to the Republican Party’s position here posits an actual, unitary, coherent worldview. Maybe that’s a reasonable assumption with other major political actors, but the Republican Party’s only worldview since 2008 has been opportunism. Functionaries perceive Obama as vulnerable on Libya, so they attack. There’s nothing more behind it, and certainly no principles in play.

Second, Joe is right that there’s substantial daylight between a principled opposition to the Libya intervention, and isolationism. But his description of a unitary “Bush-Obama style of warfare” demonstrates an unwillingness to apply that same scrutiny elsewhere. It should go without saying that beginning a small-scale intervention, without troop commitment and acting only with true international support, is distinct from the unilateral commencement of an all-out ground war (though we shouldn’t “forget Poland“). The two Presidents’ goals are similar: the reshaping of a region into something more favorable to American interests. But the difference between the means employed to that end speaks to a vast difference between the two men — one obvious anytime you look at the price tag of Bush’s adventure, both in lives and in dollars.

Libya proves that Obama shares with Bush a certain willingness to fight and, at an abstract level, comfort with deploying military force to protect American interests. But I don’t believe it speaks to any other similarity whatsoever. Not all military actions are created equal.



  1. I would still love your legal explanation of this:

  2. Also this:

    ““The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,”

    – Sen. Barack Obama, December 20, 2007

  3. He was talking about a ground war — an invasion. Shoving missiles at things is different.

    1. Are you serious? Prove it.

    2. Uh, not my burden. I can’t know what was going on in Joe Biden’s head. But the fear was that there would be an invasion, so I can imagine that’s what he was speaking to:

      Also, I am unaware of any doctrine whereby Joe Biden’s campaign speeches legally bind the President he eventually chose to serve under.

      1. Biden AND candidate Obama both talked about ‘military action’. There were no specifics about what that would look like. You are fantasizing about a reality that doesn’t exist.

  4. You’re taking the broadest possible construction of a vague term. I’m taking a reasonable one.

    1. No – you’re guessing at the one specific explanation that would not make the President look like a liar.

  5. Democrats have always supported isolated un-ratified strikes. Clinton, say. Understood in that context, I think it’s more likely the President meant to condemn the notion that presidents can start a unilateral war.

    In fact, if you look at the full quote, that’s exactly what he was doing. This answer came in response to the question, “could a President unilaterally bomb Iran?” That is, could the President start a war that WOULD require a commitment of troops to finish what he’d started? The answer there is definitely no.

    I don’t think that speaks to the more limited situation here. The question here is, “Can the President bomb a rogue, functionally leaderless nation in conjunction with UN/allied action, where there is no reasonable situation in which the action requires committing armed troops?” And most people would answer yes to that. Republicans certainly would.

    Even taking your definition as true, “liar” is a bit extreme. Presidents evolve, and this is a tougher issue than your “win-the-news-cycle” approach would have it. So is there tension between his statements then, and his actions now? Probably

    1. The question was, “Could a President unilaterally bomb Iran?”

      His answer was no. Any other details about a potential for ground war are pure conjecture. In lieu of actual facts supporting your position (which you won’t be able to produce) I would suggest that his actions today directly contradict his previous statements AND it seems like the VP should be pursuing impeachment proceedings.

  6. Yeah, good luck with that! Since (as Biden points out) impeachment has to be set by the House, with trial by the Senate, I strongly encourage the Republican House majority to draw up the articles.

    Impeachment proceedings would FINALLY prove to America that House Republicans are more interested in fixing America’s problems than in showy, meaningless gestures. Plus, it worked so well last time.

    Failing that, I expect you and yours will recognize that full strategies on national defense can rarely be reduced to or described by one-sentence promises, ambiguously phrased, and offered only in response to a specific and unique question.

    1. Biden seemed to think he could get hings rolling as a senator. Surely he could do it as VP, right?

  7. No no, he carefully stepped around that. He could spearhead politically, which is what he offered.

    And you can read the Constitution and get back to me on whether the VP can draw up articles of impeachment :)

    1. I’m glad then that we agree that your VP was/is an idiot.

    2. …huh? Did you watch the video? He’s pretty clear on his role here.

      1. In the video he acknowledges that the House does Impeachment but he says he would ‘lead an effort’ to get it done. Couldn’t he also do that as VP? Or do you want to just admit now that he is an idiot before you paint yourself into a corner?

      2. Your ability to think you’re winning a point when you’re not is charming. I’m sure he could “lead an effort.” That’s just politics. But as you admit below, it’s not a “lie” for him to not do that now.

        1. No – it was a lie for Biden to suggest his motives were anything other than political theater back then. Similarly to when the President said that the Constitution forbids a president acting unilaterally to go to war. He either didn’t believe what he was saying then or is simply disregarding the Constiution now. Which is it?

        2. Well, Pawlenty’s on my side! So is Bush’s OLC.

          1. The OLC doesn’t cover any situations similar to Libya and of course you know that.


  8. In what possible way is UN/allied action or its absence relevant to whether or not something falls within the Article II power?

    The way I see it, the only thing that matters (absent an attack against the US, which is why Bush needed authorization to invade Iraq and Afghanistan but not to shoot Al Qaeda members and really Roosevelt didn’t need a declaration against Japan) is whether there was Congressional authorization or not. Clinton had it for Somalia and Kosovo. Bush and Obama both had/have it for Iraq and Afghanistan. Hell, given the loose wording of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Nixon may have even had it to bomb Cambodia and Laos! But Obama doesn’t have it for Libya.

    And seriously, saying “shoving missiles at things” isn’t war seems like a case of “No true Scotsman”. The U.S. military is expending live ordinance on foreign targets. That’s war, and Gadhaffi didn’t attack us first – which means the President has to get Congress’s permission due to no less than three of its enumerated powers.

    1. Steve,

      I think you have nailed it. If everyone will recall, Clinton took us to war in three countries (Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia) but the Left only acknowledges Somlia (and barely that) because there were no boots on the ground. Apparently they it’s more like a video game than actual war.

      And ‘shoving missles at things’ struck me as extraordinarily offensive but I chose to ignore it.

    2. Whether or not you acknowledge it, there’s a difference between a war and missile strikes. In the latter, American lives aren’t on the line, and that matters, among other reasons, because it’s hard to call a situation like that a “war,” the declaration of which is the ONLY relevant military power reserved to Congress.

      There’s probably a better way to balance it, as is, but to follow your rule, Predator-strikes in Yemen would require prior congressional approval too, which is just not realistic.

      1. Ames, I wonder if the people on the receiving end of those missles call it war?

      2. I’m sure they do, but I can’t imagine how that affects the legal issue.

        1. The legal issue is that Libya doesn’t represent an immediate threat OR hasn’t atacked us.

          Ames – the weight of the legal community, Obama’s own administration, is firmly against you. You represent a slim minority that is intentionally obfuscating the facts in order to protect your president.

      3. Before anything else… what sort of jobs do yall have that yall can post so many comments during the day? Set aside the time commitment – how are you not running afoul of your employer’s internet access policy? And yeah, you can use a smartphone – it’s what I do – but I can’t see wanting to comment so badly as to use that more than once or twice a day.

        Anyway… I don’t think American lives being on the line matters to whether or not something’s a war – especially since the ideal in a war is to inflict 100% casualties on your enemy while taking 0 casualties. And I really don’t see a problem with requiring prior congressional approval to do Predator strikes in Yemen. It’s not realistic because people’ve been ignoring the Constitution’s text, which clearly makes Congress supreme with regards to the President, since day one. After all, the President’s power is just that of a military rank. Congress’s war powers are:

        1) To declare war.
        2) To grant letters of marque and reprisal.
        3) To make rules concerning captures on land and water
        4) To raise and support armies
        5) To provide and maintain a navy
        6) To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces
        7) To call forth the militia
        8) To set certain rules for the militia.

        I think 2, 3, and 6 especially give it war-micro-management authority. Bad idea? Probably, but just because the Constitution is flawed doesn’t mean we don’t have to obey the flaws until we amend or replace it. For better or worse, it is a suicide pact – or else it is irrelevant.

        Plus there’s its power to pass laws necessary and proper for “all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof” with no exception exception made for that officer called the President.

        And I should note, given the fucked up way they used commas all willy-nilly back then, whether it’s (Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy) + (Commander-in-Chief of the Militia when called up to Federal Service) or it’s (Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy when in actual service, i.e. war) + (Commander-in-Chief of the Militia when called up to Federal Service). As I understand the proper use of commas it should be the second, though.

        1. My company has a pretty tolerant internet policy. And I stare at a screen all day long so it’s pretty easy to fire off quick comments between emails and spreadsheets.

        2. what sort of jobs do yall have that yall can post so many comments during the day?

          Grad student and freelancer on the side. And since I’m writing my thesis on early American law, this isn’t too far removed from what I’m doing anyway. Besides, I’m 6-7 time zones ahead of the US, so most of the activity here happens during my evenings.

          It’s not realistic because people’ve been ignoring the Constitution’s text, which clearly makes Congress supreme with regards to the President, since day one.

          Have you ever read Madison’s Notes from the Convention? I think it’s quite clear from the debates that if there was one thing the ‘Founding Fathers’ could agree on, it was to be scared to death by Congress and what it might do that would infringe on public liberty. The recurring trend is, “How can we limit Congress, especially the House, as much as possible and still call this a republic?” If anyone had suggested actually giving Congress direct control of the military, I think they would all just have burst into tears or something.

          This is reflected in the text of the Constitution as well, if you take a slightly broader view of articles 1-3. It’s notable that among the three branches, Congress is the only one to have its powers enumerated in any detail. With the others, it’s just “the Executive should do executive-y stuff” and “the Judiciary should hear these types of cases”, but for Congress, it’s “they can do this, this and this. And under no circumstances whatever can they do this, this, and this.”

          So yeah, I don’t really buy that “supremacy of Congress” theory. It’s also unlikely considering the historical context, because in Great Britain, Parliament was in fact more or less supreme (although the relationship with the Crown was complicated), and that was precisely what the colonies had revolted against, after all.

          1. The question was directed more at Mike and Marius than you due to the time zone thing. And no, I haven’t read Notes from the Convention.

            And while I don’t care anywhere near as much about the “spirit” or “intent” of the law/Constitution as I do the text, you’ve got a point about enumeration versus vagueness. I’ve just always looked at it as “executive-y stuff” means “The President shall be Congress’s gofer”.

          2. “If anyone had suggested actually giving Congress direct control of the military, I think they would all just have burst into tears or something.”

            This is an interesting point. It almost makes one think that if anyone had thought about it they might have insisted that future President’s have military training. I guess that would have been hard though considering that 2 of the first three presidents were had no experience.

            1. Yes, that wouldn’t have been practical, and I should note there also appears to have been some concerns about the relationship between the executive and the military. In particular, the New Jersey Plan, which was proposed by the small state delegations in opposition to Madison and Randolph’s original Virginia Plan, specifically prohibited the executives (they wanted an executive college rather than an individual) from taking personal command of any military forces. It wasn’t brought up again, though, as far as I can see.

              1. Well it’s understandable why they wouldn’t want the executive to control the military. How many times has that relationship been abused in world history? Dozens? Hundreds?

                IMO the key check to executive power is congressional oversight. That’s why I think that this end-run by the President is so problematic. Look, I have no problem with him keeping Congress in the dark on covert ops and certain terrorist hunting activities (loose lips sink ships) because those are targeted and have little or no geo-political ramifications. Attaching our military to regime change in Libya without so much as a conversation is a whole different thing. Congress should have had a chance to weigh in and I think the very bipartisan nature of the pros and cons is telling. When there are Republicans AND Democrats on both sides of the debate I think it demonstrates this isn’t a partisan issue – it’s a true foreign policy debate.

  9. Is it really so odious that President Barack Obama of 2011 has a different opinion than Sen. Barack Obama of 2007 did? In a larger perspective, the former has a responsibility to the powers of the Executive, while the latter’s responsibility was to defend those of the Legislature.

    It’s the same situation as John Marshall having different attitudes as State Secretary and as Chief Justice, or even Thomas Becket as King Henry’s Chancellor and as Archbishop – different responsibilities.

    1. My inclination is to agree with you. Being President caries far different responsibilities than those imagined by candidates. So with that said, how do we interpret promises made in the course of a campaign? It seems the change in foreign policy from Bush to Obama has been marginal at best but we were told in 2008 that an Obama foreign policy would be a radical departure from the Bush foreign policy.

      I’m not suggesting that Obama lied. I’m suggesting that his supporters’ hopes were unrealistic.

    2. Ah, so you’re a concern troll :)

      My expectations were realistic. I’ve been neither surprised nor disappointed by the Libya thing.

      1. I don’t think you’re using that term correctly. I just remain astounded at the intellectual acrobatics that some liberals are willing to undertake in order to remain loyal to this President.

        I also think that if we went back and read your posts from 2008 we would see much less realism and much more idealism than you claim now.

      2. By all means, prove it!

        1. ‘Not my burden’

        2. Sigh… you can’t ask me to prove my consistency over a three-year period

          1. I’m really just talking about summer/fall 2008 when you were dreaming of holding hands and walking down the beach at sunset with the hoped-for-Obama Administration.

          2. Oh sure! Did I ever say, “I can’t wait for Obama to not unilaterally launch missiles at rogue states”? Because I don’t think I did.

            1. That quote kind of says it all.

              “…launch missiles at rogue states”

              You look at this as some kind of video game with no political or long-term consequences . Let me ask you a question Ames: How did we end up being responsibile for the administration of and rebuilding of Afghanistan and Iraq? I’ll answer for you. We removed their government by force and in the case of Afghanistan we assisted an opposition movement and later installed them in power.

              The way you wave your hand and dismiss any concerns about Libya AND deliberately mis-interpret the Constitution (which is especially tragic for a lawyer to do) makes me think you have just completely abandoned any pretense of objectivity and assumed the role of Keith Olbermann.

  10. Well, with that, you’ve verged into hyperbole. First, you should read the OLC document, which doesn’t deal specifically with this situation, true, but few authorities in legal practice actually do. Draw some inferences, for chrissake!

    Next, what differences do you see between the Libya intervention, and the Iraq/Afghanistan wars?

    1. The OLC document is specific on the nature of the military action. What why I would infer that same legality on another action that is completely different?

    2. With regards to Iraq Bush perceived a threat and asked for Congressional approval. With Libya Obama perceives no threat and did not seek approval.

      I never supported the war in Afghanistan as it was prosecuted and I have been vocal about that since 2001. It’s probably a good example of being similar to Libya because we over-committed ourselves there too.

      Here’s the easiest way to highlight why Libya is wrong: If Obama was sending in ground troops would you still believe this fell within his war powers?

      1. How exactly are you “over-committed” in Libya? We’re talking drone strikes, air surveillance and some refuelling. I think even your air strikes in Yemen must be more taxing for you than Libya (and by the way, did those ever receive Congressional approval, and if not, why isn’t anyone complaining about that?)

        1. We’re over-committed because we now have a political stake in Libya that we didn’t before. If this devolves into a civil war, we’ve already picked a side.

          As for Yemen – are you talking about airstrikes on terrorists? If so, that was covered in 2001.

          1. In fact there’s been civil war in Libya for months now, but the choice was never between doing nothing or choosing a side – inaction would effectively have meant picking Gadhaffi’s side, because then the rebels would have been crushed.

            And Yemen isn’t just “airstrikes on terrorists”. There’s been a civil war (or several, actually) going on there for years and you’re a part of that much more than in Libya.

            1. Inaction is hardly the same as choosing sides. By that logic the English and the French sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

              So you don’t think picking a side carries implications? What if the government forces begin to get the upper hand and move towards victory? Do we push them back, create a stalemate or help the rebels push forward? And what Gadhaffi’s forces win? What does that mean for our credibility with future revolutions?

              The US role in Yemen is to go after terrorists. It is complicated by the civil war but my understanding is that we are not actively involving ourselves in that dynamic.

              1. By that logic the English and the French sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

                With the Confederacy? On the contrary, the British lack of support for the Confederacy was a contributing factor in their defeat. Imagine if they had decided to intervene in favour of the South, as was a distinct possibility at several points during the war. Obviously their ultimate decision to stay out implicitly supported the Union, which was the stronger part in the conflict.

                What if the government forces begin to get the upper hand and move towards victory? Do we push them back, create a stalemate or help the rebels push forward?

                No offense, but do you actually know what’s going on in Libya? Because what you’re describing is exactly what’s been happening over the last couple of months: Initial advances by the rebels, then sort of a fluid stalemate for a while, and most recently renewed rebel advances, all under the cover of NATO missions.

                But my point is that inaction is in itself a form of action. In this case, it’d have meant accepting that Gadhaffi would crush the rebels and probably burn Benghazi to the ground. And I’m pretty sure I know what that’d mean for your credibility with future revolutions.

                The US role in Yemen is to go after terrorists. It is complicated by the civil war but my understanding is that we are not actively involving ourselves in that dynamic.

                The problem is the terrorist organizations are allied to the tribes rebelling against the government, so targetting the one means targetting the other as well. You’re involved whether you want to or not. Of course, with Saleh’s apparent fall, everything is just chaos there right now.

                1. The British never supported the Union – they simply allowed the war to progress without their involvement. Inaction is just that, inaction. Staying out of a war does not mean you are siding with the superior power.

                  1. Then read “favours” instead of “support”. Regardless, if intervention has the capacity to change the course of a conflict, it follows that the decision not to intervene is in itself a political choice, the consequences of which must also be considered.

                    I mean, do you seriously beleive that the Libyan rebels would have had a snowball’s chance without NATO support?

                    1. Of course not – but it’s also not the only place there is fighting going on.


                      So I guess NATO is expressly endorsing the stronger side in each of those conflicts, right?

  11. Note that Afghanistan was authorized, though, too.

    To your question, that’s a material distinction. You might as well ask, “How do you feel about that guy shaking your wife’s hand? Oh, you’re okay with it? Well what if he KISSED HER ON THE MOUTH? Ahah! I have you now!”

    Here’s another question: what if Obama told Congress that Libya was planning to plant a dirty bomb in NYC? And forced out CIA operatives who disagreed with this blatantly false characterization? And secured authorization under false pretenses? Which is better?

  12. My point was that, much as the Democrat hawks loved military interventions under Clinton because of the perceived low-risk to troops – you are downplaying this one because it’s just ‘shoving missles at something’. You are ignoring the longterm geo-political ramifications that come with removing a leader from power.

    Also, if Obama wants to invent an imediate threat and then run it by Congress, then he’s followed the process, like Bush. If that process still sends us to war then the process failed – but it doesn’t mean you make an end-run so you don’t get embarrased in a floor vote. I’m sure you see the similarities there to our domestic legal system and vigilantes. Or maybe you just like to pretend the big O is Batman?

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