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War is a Fiscal Issue

Why Congress Must Debate Going to War in Libya

by MARK WEISBROT

"The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

That was Sen. Barack Obama on December 20, 2007, opposing the idea that President Bush could bomb Iran without congressional approval. But now he is doing exactly what he opposed when he was not yet representing the U.S. foreign policy establishment – in other words, an empire.

The people who founded this country were not interested in ruling the whole world, and that is why they wrote a constitution that gave the people’s representatives in Congress the authority to declare war.

The average American, contrary to popular mythology, lives a lot closer to those principles than does the foreign policy elite. To support going to war anywhere, he or she generally has been lied to for years and persuaded that there is a serious threat to our own security. Iraq is just the most blatant and recent example, where 70 percent of the people were convinced that Saddam Hussein was involved in the massacres of September 11. And still most Americans were against the invasion of Iraq before it happened.

For the foreign policy elite, despite their differences over Iraq, war is just an extension of politics by other means. Their kids don’t have to fight in them or come home disabled or dead, and they don’t bear the economic costs.

This difference in attitude is why this administration went to war in Libya without consulting the Congress, despite working with the UN Security Council and the Arab League. There are serious reasons for an elected official to think twice about supporting U.S. involvement in yet another war in a far away Muslim country that has little or nothing to do with our national security.

We do not know how long this war is going to last; it could go on for years. History shows that it is a lot easier to get involved in a war than to get out; there are still 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 9 years, despite a recent Washington Post poll showing nearly two-thirds of Americans think that the war is not worth fighting.

In just a few days of bombing Libya we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and this will surely escalate into the billions. Congressman Barney Frank spoke for millions of Americans when he said that this military action was a "fiscal issue," and that some Americans were going to die because we were laying off firefighters and police. But somehow there are always some extra billions for war.

Americans are understandably skeptical that our involvement in yet another war in an oil state is motivated by humanitarian concerns. Our leaders have shown little concern for the people of Yemen as dozens of peaceful protesters have been massacred by a U.S.-backed government. Also, if Washington and its allies were really just trying to prevent bloodshed in Libya, there would be a serious effort to find a negotiated solution to the conflict – which is lacking.

Foreign intervention in a civil war often makes things worse, by inflaming ethnic conflicts. More than a million Iraqis are dead as a result of the U.S. invasion there, which among other things promoted a bloody civil war. The invasion of Afghanistan also greatly worsened the civil war there.

A number of Members of Congress, including John Larson, the chair of the Democratic Caucus in the House, have demanded that President Obama seek Congressional approval for this war. Let’s hope that more have the courage to join them. Otherwise, the next President may decide that they have the right to decide to bomb Iran.

MARK WEISBROT is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This article originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee.