I'd like to post today some (hopefully) educational and philosophical thoughts on a major current event of considerable importance, on which every American should be well informed.
There has been much said of late (by both liberals and conservatives, even on the usually well-informed Daily Show) to the effect that Obama is a war criminal, because his aerial assault on Libya was unconstitutional and had no legal standing. Simply because he didn't get congressional permission first. This keeps getting repeated, by members of congress no less (who of all people ought to know better), even though it's obviously false to anyone actually aware of the law (much less its precedents: Reagan and Clinton both did exactly the same thing, multiple times, despite being icons of an "ideal president" for both the right and the left).
On the Libya attack being constitutional (and legal) and no different from actions even Reagan and Clinton took: if you doubt this, then read the sound and accurate analysis of the law by Erik Uliasz, "Is President Obama’s Attack on Gaddafi's Forces In Libya Unconstitutional?," which carries particular weight since Uliasz is morally opposed to Obama's action and thus has every reason to sing the popular tune rather that admit, begrudgingly, that Obama obeyed the law, to the letter. And every American ought to understand what that law is and how and why actions like this are legal (even if only so they know they need to lobby congress to change that law if they don't like it, rather than complacently assuming actions like this are already illegal).
As to international law, the action was formally ratified by the UN, an organization of all the world's nations created and granted authority by international treaty (a treaty thus ratified by the U.S. Congress itself), which controls the international war crimes court. In other words, this is the very body that decides what is a war crime and that prosecutes (what there is of) international law. Generally if the UN approves an action, it isn't going to be considered a war crime by any legitimate court in the world. To the contrary, by declaring the action just, by international law, Obama's action was no war crime, but precisely the opposite: an action to police war crimes in a region dangerously close to our NATO allies (which, as a member of NATO, we are also treaty bound to protect, again a fact ratified by U.S. Congress).
As to U.S. law, Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973 which specifically gives the President full power and authority to attack anyone anywhere for almost any reason without asking Congress first and without requiring any Congressional authority--as long as he tells them about it within 48 hours (in other words, after he's already done it), at which point congress can revoke his authority to continue hostilities (which, it's worth pointing out, Congress didn't do, even after Obama fulfilled the statute by informing Congress as required). Constitutionally, therefore, Congress did give Obama authority to attack Libya without asking for its specific permission...in 1973. As long as he has a treaty, statute, or immanent threat to invoke (and in this case, he has our UN treaty). You might not like that fact. But it's the law. And Obama followed it.
So there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about Obama's assault on Libya. That leaves the moral and political question of whether he should have done it.
The Daily Show made it into a hypocrisy issue, in that we didn't do this in Bahrain or Rwanda, so why are we picking now to do it? But Bahrain wasn't using air power against civilians, or even battle tanks and ground artillery. So why would Obama attack Bahrain's air power and gunnery battalions? The comparison makes no sense. There simply isn't any action we can take in Bahrain that would do any good. Whereas in Libya the action was a no brainer: it was cheap, easy, fast, not plausibly dangerous to any American, and immediately stopped an actual war crime in progress by destroying the major military assets that were being deployed against civilians. It didn't involve invading the country or putting a single boot on the ground. There is no occupation, no nation building. Just straightforward deletion of a war criminal's military power. With full UN and NATO support (even, in fact, the support of the Arab League, although they are now complaining about it being too effective).
As for Rwanda, the comparison is multiply inapt, because there literally wasn't anything we could do about that. Millions of people wielding machetes can't be stopped with a "no fly" zone and really could only be stopped by a full declaration of war and a major invasion by ground troops and ultimately the mass slaughter of millions of machete carrying lunatics. To be honest, I seriously doubt had we done that that people would be calling it "the good thing" that they now insist it would have been had it been done. At any rate, the analogy with Libya is precisely zero. Intervention in Rwanda would not have been cheap, easy, fast, or free of significant American casualties. Moreover, by the time we had the approval of the UN (and a U.S. Congress constantly bitching about being included in such things even though they gave our presidents the power not to include them), the genocide in Rwanda would have been long concluded. So comparable action to stop the atrocity would actually have been impossible in that case.
There is also the issue of oil (i.e. "gee isn't it bad that we only intervene in oil rich countries") but that's actually a legitimate national security concern (and international security concern, which is why the UN will always be on board with such operations) since spikes in oil prices caused by regional instability actually severely harm us (particularly when struggling our way out of a recession), as well as the whole world (e.g. the consequent doubling of food prices worldwide will no doubt result in millions of deaths from additional starvation, as well as even greater political and military instability).
Like it or not, keeping oil producing nations peaceful and prosperous is a direct national security interest of the United States, and a direct world security interest of the United Nations. This will remain so even if we miraculously weened ourselves completely off foreign oil--because China, India, Brazil et al. are now far exceeding us in their demand for oil, thus the instability and starvation issues stemming from chaos in oil producing nations will continue to threaten American security no matter what we do about our own oil dependency. This is not to say American policy in this regard has always been sound. But the solution is not no policy but better policy. We can't stay uninvolved.
There is also the humanitarian issue. I think it would be great if we could act the international cop, if we were trustworthy enough (we often aren't) and the UN picked up the bill (it won't). So most humanitarian crises can't be solved by American power, except at too great a cost. We need to look after our own people's welfare first and foremost (which is why we should never have gone into Iraq and need to get the hell out of there already, and why we'd never invade North Korea, unless it wages war on us or our allies). But when we can usefully intervene at minimal cost and risk, we should. And the Libya action is a rare example of a perfect opportunity to make very effective use of America's greatest asset: our incredible technological ingenuity. This is the kind of action stealth tech and guided missiles are perfect for. The benefits are huge (a major humanitarian crisis was averted, a war crime halted) and the costs minor (just two days of easy button pushing). If we could have stopped the genocide in Rwanda this way, no one would doubt it would have been the right thing to do. If then, so now.
Indeed, that Obama's action against Libya was a good idea is already evident from the fact of nearly everyone, in both parties at home and every nation abroad (even Arab nations), who complained he wasn't doing it--until he did, then suddenly they claim it's a bad idea. They are the hypocrites and should be called out as such. But there is one overlooked but very important reason why this was the right thing to do, which is why I would also have done it were I president. I don't agree with everything Obama does (I rate him a B- president, although that's a decent grade when past presidents are compared), but on this he did everything right. It was necessary from a basic standpoint of international relations theory.
It's straightforward strategic-theatre logic: the democracy movements springing up all across the Middle East are an important forward step for U.S. interests, since democracy is a required first step to economic progress, which is a required first step to deradicalization, which is a required first step toward ending the longstanding war against us waged by international cabals like Al Qaeda. In fact, Al Qaeda can never be defeated in any other way. For they will have otherwise an unlimited and eternally renewable pool of recruits, the more so now that these populations are skewing heavily young male, the worst possible security situation, as every political scientist will tell you. None of the democracy movements in the Middle East are spearheaded by, or even majority comprised of, Islamic radicals, but in fact largely secularized urban youth. This was the best thing that could reasonably have happened in the region. We need to get behind it (and without seeming to be secretly causing it--hence even Obama's delays are strategically sound in this regard).
In contrast, if Qadaffi were allowed to successfully put down the democracy rebellion in his own country by the mass murder of civilians through air-to-ground and mechanized military action, it would establish a precedent across the region, legitimizing every other regime to do the same, while simultaneously demoralizing and thus effectively killing all the pro-democracy movements--since if not even America will save them from such atrocities, their efforts are obviously doomed, so why bother?
It was thus absolutely necessary for Obama to tip the scales away from Qadaffi's success (it will be a disaster for us if he wins--we need him to fail, in every conceivable sense of the word). Who succeeds him is irrelevant, even if its someone ambivalent or hostile to the U.S. That's because we have bigger interests here: as long as the precedent is not established that Qadaffi's methods will go unhindered and unpunished, and as long as the precedent is set instead that America supports the democracy trend raging through the whole region even when we aren't assured of gaining an ally (and that we will not support, even by acquiescence, any anti-democracy regime's use of violence--not even in Bahrain, where we are otherwise helpless), then the entire balance of power in the region is shifted in America's favor, which will be a great benefit to us in the long run. Because an anti-American party elected into power today will, if democracy is sustained, be voted out eventually. In fact, that's the only way the region ever can move forward toward better relations with the U.S. We need democracy in the region. And we will not have it if we sit idly by and let Qadaffi holocaust his own citizens, and then, by extension, any other ruler who will take the hint and do the same, knowing we'll do nothing about it.