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Being President

By Taylor Marvin

“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.”

Barack Obama, 2007

Let’s keep one thing clear. Whether military action to stop a impending massacre in Libya was justified or not, the fate of Libyan civilians is clearly not an imminent threat to the United States. It’s true that the NATO decision to intervene had to be made on short notice if it was to happen at all, because by the time Congress had debated the issue the rebels would have been militarily defeated. But that doesn’t change the core question here. Either the President is constitutionally permitted to unilaterally lead the country into foreign wars or not — there’s no allowance for the urgency of the situation. If candidate Obama had claimed a president shouldn’t unilaterally authorize military actions not in response to an imminent threat to the US, naivety could reconcile this claim with President Obama’s later actions. But the belief that US presidents are not constitutionally permitted to unilaterally authorize wars doesn’t enjoy the same flexibility. The real lesson here is that the world looks very different to a Senator and to the President of the United States. It’s not as if President Obama suddenly forgot or maliciously abandoned his earlier views; I’m sure he’s painfully aware of them. But it’s much easier to reduce difficult, endlessly complex decisions to absolutes when your inaction doesn’t condemn thousands of people to violent deaths. But this doesn’t change the issue — if President Obama truly believed that he was legally bound to stand by and accept tragedy in Libya, then inaction was his only acceptable choice. Of course, this knowledge would have done little for his consequence, but regret is the nature of the presidency.

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