Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Obama’s Imperial Presidency

By Ben Schreiner

The ascension of Barack Obama to president in 2009, along with the presence of solid Democratic majorities in Congress, saw hopes abound for the dismantling of the imperial presidency and a return of constitutional checks on executive power.  It was to be a return to the light after eight years of Bush/Cheney imposed imperial darkness.  And who better to shepherd this return to a constitutionally bound executive than a former professor of constitutional law?   

Flash-forward to 2011, and the imperial presidency continues apace—hope we now see was nothing but a mirage.  And nowhere is this more apparent than in US involvement in Libya. 

The US venture into that most limited of all interventions, we were initially told, was to be the model of a post-imperial executive in practice (i.e., the newly christened “Obama Doctrine”).  As the White House readily trumpeted, unlike the brash and chest-pounding military mis(adventures) of administrations past, this administration entered into Libya only after receiving direct appeals from the “international community” (confined to Britain and France, of course).  Such an intervention, it went, could in no way be construed as imperial or neo-colonial, but rather the complete opposite: it was at the behest of the Libyan people for “limited humanitarian” purposes.  

This charade easily played to shared notions of American exceptionalism and greater ideas of western political superiority.  Such a vain narrative even seduced majorities on the left, thus blunting the development of any meaningful opposition.  In fact, support was deemed so strong that Obama found it superfluous to go to Congress for the formal authorization to deploy force, as it was simply implied.   

This “limited humanitarian intervention,” however, has since devolved into a three month long (and counting) war, leaving the former professor of constitutional law in direct violation of his once honored text.  After all, the authorization powers provided by the War Powers Act—as has been well noted—have now lapsed; at the earliest May 20th and the latest this past Sunday. 

Sensing potential opportunity, the Republican led House has tepidly risen to defend the Constitution and reign in the imperial president.  We can understand Republican motives, though, to be driven more by the thirst for political blood than an affinity to the Constitution, given the right’s general lust for imperial conquest.  

In seeking to tap into the popular discontent over US formal involvement in a third Middle East war, the House earlier this month passed a non-binding resolution rebuking Obama for not gaining their formal authorization for the Libyan campaign (that same day, a resolution calling for a complete US withdrawal form Libya was defeated, yet still garnered 148 votes).  And then this past week, Speaker John Boehner ferried off a letter to the President, warning that if a full and detailed explanation was not given for US involvement in Libya, the House may move to cut funding (of course, nothing more than a cynical political ploy).  More substantially, 10 House members—Democrats and Republicans—have jointly filed suit to curtail the President’s powers in Libya.  Notably, these 10 members remain marginalized within their own parties.

The administration has responded to this growing Congressional pressure with an evolving degree of condescending indignation.  Responding to the House resolutions, White House press secretary Jay Carney stated that they were both “unhelpful.”  Then in a 30-page report released to the House last week, the administration steadfastly insisted that its involvement in NATO’s Libyan mission does not qualify as “hostilities,” and thus exempts Obama from the restraints of the War Powers Act and any Congressional meddling.  (A opinion seconded by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who Friday reassured that the whole Libya debate was rather moot, given that the NATO operations were to be “over before you know it anyway.”  It would appear that the NATO Tomahawk with Gadhafi’s name is rapidly nearing its ultimate destination.)

Markedly, this past weekend reports from the New York Times surfaced that it was in fact President Obama who personally deemed the US engagement in Libya not to meet the “hostilities” threshold.  Such a stance, it was also reported, happened to be in direct contraction to those held by both Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers.  The imperial president, we see, is above reproach.  

In response to Obama’s steep benchmark for Libyan “hostilities,” Speaker Boehner scoffed that such a claim “doesn’t pass the straight face test.”  Indeed, but this ought not to be of any surprise.  After all, this is the same administration that celebrated an “end” to “combat” missions in Iraq last August.  Moreover, if US involvement in Libya is deemed to constitute “hostilities,” and thus necessitate a formal congressional authorization, what is Congress to make of the recently announced expansion of US drone operations in Yemen—not to speak of Pakistan?  

But we needn’t worry about the Republican led House doing any more than huffing and puffing over Libya, for they remain fully absorbed with their own war on the working masses toiling back in the imperial homeland.  Hence, the imperial presidency endures unimpeded.

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