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Separation anxiety

If you liked Afghanistan, you're going to love Libya

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It's not hard to recall when President Obama announced he was sending U.S. military forces to Libya. His exact words, when he informed Congress of his decision, were that this would be an operation of "days, not weeks." But that was March 18, and the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, and the millions of dollars are now approaching a billion in new military expenses our nation cannot afford. Now the president faces a new challenge: As of June 15, he has run out the clock on the War Powers Act of 1973 and both Democrats and Republicans say that, without Congressional approval, Obama's Libyan War is illegal and unconstitutional.

After so many years of watching George W. Bush and Dick Cheney twist the legal system into Gordian Knots, we had hoped that version of the Dark Ages was behind us. After all, Obama owed his election in no small part to the fact that Americans were repulsed by the lack of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush used as an excuse to invade Iraq. Equally repulsive were such measures as extraordinary renditions, where suspects could be sent to unnamed foreign prisons and tortured without the messy Constitutional guarantees of due cause, our long-standing legal principle that people are "innocent until proven guilty," or the opportunity to defend oneself against accusations through legal counsel.

But no. Here we are again; this time with a Democrat in the White House and, as Yogi Berra once quipped, "it's like déjà vu all over again." Unable to get the legal opinion he wanted from the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, the Defense Department's general counsel, or Attorney General Eric Holder, Obama turned to State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh and White House Counsel Robert Bauer to gin up a Byzantine excuse for the President to declare war without Congressional approval.

Obama's logic, if you can call it that, depends on bastardizing the English language to insist that America's role in Libya constitutes neither "war" nor "hostilities." The reasons are simple. The Constitution says that only Congress has the authority to declare war, as part of the separation of powers. And if the U.S. engages in "hostilities," it requires Congressional approval within 60 days of initiating such actions.

The U.S. has already flown 2,500 sorties against Libya that include dropping bombs; killing people, including a large and growing number of civilians; and providing most of the intelligence used by other nations who are making war on Libya. The cost is now estimated at $750 million. A growing number of influential public figures are now saying that no matter what Obama chooses to call it, we are in yet another war in the Middle East.

The problem is that this war has very little bearing on the United States. Libya does not produce enough oil to threaten our economy or national security. Nor, of course, are Libyans jumping in boats to cross several oceans and invade our shores. Nor are they dropping bombs on our citizens or killing Americans from above with Predator drones. In short, there is no justifiable reason why we are now bombing Libya's infrastructure, blockading its shores, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to kill its citizens. None.

Even worse, there is no overwhelming evidence that we are helping what we generously call the "Libyan rebels." (If they were in Saudi Arabia, for instance, we would call people doing the exact same thing "insurgents.") No matter what Obama wishes to call them, the plain facts are that we do not know who they are, we do not know their long-term plans for the nation should they successfully oust sitting ruler Moammar Quadafi, and we do not know who or what the weapons that are being supplied to them now may eventually wind up being used for or against. There are resonating echoes of Afghanistan, where the U.S. supplied those fighting the Soviet Union with everything from shoulder-fired missiles to AK-47s, who then turned those arms against us after our 2001 invasion and continue to kill Americans with those weapons to this day.

Add to that the harsh reality that new polls say a whopping 72 percent of Americans now believe that we are involved in too many wars, and that we have nearly exceeded a decade of war in Afghanistan and eight long years in Iraq. And what do we have to show for all of it? Nothing but a horrendous national debt, thousands of dead soldiers, tens of thousands of veterans with grievous injuries ranging from blown-off limbs to debilitating psychological conditions, and the daunting prospect of providing life-long care to those for whom the wars never end.

Obama has lost again and again on major policy initiatives by seeking the "bipartisan support" he never got. Yet, when it comes to Libya, there is indeed a bipartisan effort to force the President to follow both the law and the Constitution. Democrats and Republicans want explanations, answers, transparency, and the opportunity to debate our involvement in this new war. Equally ironic is the position in which the president's actions have now placed his fellow Democrats: Do they blindly support Obama's radical expansion of executive power to wage war, as does Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, or do they fulfill their Congressional duties and wind up fighting their own president in the run-up to an election? This issue is likely to come to a head in the next few days. When it does, we can only hope the separation of powers is preserved and Obama's Libyan war ends.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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