As negotiations continue for the surrender of the few cities where deposed tyrant Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi could be hiding, how peaceful the endgame turns out to be may impact the rhetoric surrounding President Obama’s decision to enter the fray in the first place. Part of that discussion will undoubtedly concern the War Powers Resolution (“WPR”), the post-Vietnam legislation that promised to hold future presidents accountable to Congress when engaging in international conflicts. The law has been largely ignored by past commanders in chief, and no Congress has ever enforced the act. Although Obama has claimed that the WPR does not apply to US involvement in Libya, a successful intervention could make the legislation even less potent than it is now.
The WPR was passed in 1973 in response to a military intervention that started out small and escalated tremendously. Vietnam has drawn comparisons to the heavily protested war in Iraq, which was promised to be narrow in scope but turned into a full scale occupation. In contrast, Obama’s command in Libya has been limited to air strikes and, assuming that our military support ends upon the surrender of Qaddafi’s remaining forces, will most likely be less than a year in duration. While success in this area is hard to define, the toppling of a dictator with a reputation for crimes against humanity without putting US boots on the ground would seem to be a job well done. If the NATO air strikes in Libya are seen as a success, could that soften memories of Iraq and Vietnam and in effect eliminate any chance of ever enforcing the WPR?
A lot of factors will affect how Obama’s action in Libya, as well as the WPR, are viewed in the coming months and years. Revolutions by the people do not always work out for the people- the 1979 Iranian Revolution is a good example. Furthermore, the oppressed have a historical tendency to turn the tables and become the oppressors. Unfortunately, there are already signs that this is happening in Libya. If the US involvement in Libya’s revolution blows up in Obama’s face, could a more potent version of the WPR be a future legislative battle?
Looking more short term, Libya-esque interventions may be unlikely to reoccur soon for a different reason. Wielding the power of the purse is Congress’ only real way to control our military, and the current political climate is increasingly hostile to any type of spending. As the Pentagon budget continues to slowly lose its sacred cow status, substantial cuts are looking more and more likely. Coupled with a public who grew up and grew old with two staggeringly expensive wars, military interventions overseas may well become politically unviable, no matter how likely they are to succeed.