Foreign Policy Blogs

Critics Question U.S. Role in Libya War

It’s been an interesting week in which President Obama defended the U.S. role in Libya against critics in Congress. It’s an odd development and many people find it hard to wrap their brains around the idea of a Democrat president who had campaigned against the wars and pledged to bring our troops home now defending his efforts to get the U.S. involved in yet another war. Critics in Congress contend that the War Powers Act demands that he seek Congressional approval for ongoing military operations in Libya or end our involvement after 90 days. Obama says that because the U.S. has stepped back into a support capacity (providing intelligence and logistics) that our involvement does not constitute military hostilities under the terms of the Act and therefore no Congressional approval is needed. This video report from NBC nicely summarizes the debate in Washington:

While there’s no doubt that there are serious constitutional issues regarding the separation of powers raised by the American role in Libya, from a “U.S. role in the world” perspective this is all merely a distraction from what I consider the wider issue of the conflict, which is the transformation of NATO. Remember that NATO is a defensive alliance born in the Cold War and founded to protect its members from attack by Russia. Of course, Russia is no longer the threat it was during that era, but far from fading away, the alliance has grown. The defensive character of the alliance is enshrined in the charter which all member states accept when they join, and it’s the reason that NATO is fighting in Afghanistan. The U.S. was attacked by terrorists operating in Afghanistan and so NATO invoked Article 5 of the Charter and came to the defense of a member state and joined the fight.  It was one of the bright spots after 9/11 to realize that our allies were with us not just in word but in deed. The war in Afghanistan is therefore consistent with the goals, history, and values of the alliance. The war in Libya is far different. The stark fact that NATO was not attacked by Libya remains for me the most compelling aspect of this intervention. Unlike the war in Afghanistan, NATO cannot claim that the war in Libya is similarly consistent with the character of the alliance as a defensive collective security organization. The U.S.-led Atlantic Alliance has become an offensive alliance and that surely has to rank as one of the most significant changes in international affairs in this young century.



Joel Davis

Joel Davis is the Director of Online Services at the International Studies Association in Tucson, Arizona. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona, where he received his B.A. in Political Science and Master's degree in International Relations. He has lived in the UK, Italy and Eritrea, and his travels have taken him to Canada, Brazil, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Greece.

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Areas of Focus:
State Department; Diplomacy; US Aid; and Alliances.

Contact Joel by e-mail at [email protected].