Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Libya vote

The US House of Representatives recently refused to authorise Obama's use of troops in Libya. I'm assessing what this means and what the impact of this could be.

I'm in three minds about whether Republicans have voted against authorisation simply to make life more difficult for Obama and to punish him for not seeking approval earlier; whether it marks a more fundamental shift in the ideology of elected Republicans; or whether they're simply seeking to do what is most popular with their constituents and the public regardless of their own personal views. Most Republicans strongly supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the wake of 9/11, supported George W. Bush's shift in foreign policy to the Bush Doctrine. This effectively meant that the USA would take action to defend itself from potential threats, and would also consider the governments of threatening countries to be enemies - not just the terrorist groups which they harboured. It was very much a case of 'you're with us or you're against us' (and rightly so). However, it's difficult to know whether the Republicans' opposition to intervention in Libya marks a shift away from supporting and interventionist foreign policy. Whilst Afghanistan and Iraq were justified on the basis of being a direct threat to the security of the US, this claim cannot be made of Libya. Gaddafi, though an atrocious dictator, agreed to cooperation with the United States, renouncing WMD and agreeing to international monitoring. Libya, whilst not an especially stable state, cannot be seen to be posing a threat to the USA's security; if anything, Gaddafi's regime was actually keeping down the militant and Islamist groups and ensuring some stability. Therefore, there can be little justification for the Libyan intervention in terms of anything other than humanitarian assistance, and perhaps more self-serving, the chance at influence and economic opportunities in the Middle East when a new government is formed in Libya.

I think that Republicans have recognised that they came in for a lot of criticism from all corners of the political spectrum as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan, and are seeking to ensure that if and when the Libyan mission goes tits up and the blame game begins to be played, Republicans in the House can point out that they opposed the mission, and only through Obama's arrogance did it continue. If the Libyan conflict drags on through the 2012 election - which I think it will - not only will the Republicans have strong fodder to criticise Obama for dragging the country into another war at a time of spending cuts, but also to suggest he ignored opposition and acted unconstitutionally by breaking the War Powers Act. This legislation was passed in 1973, and its most notable provision is that it requires a President to gain congressional assent within 60 days of using troops. Obama failed to do this, and therefore came into a good deal of criticism from Republicans like John Boehner, who rightly used Obama's non-compliance to score political points.

However, Republican opposition to Libya is not total. Whilst the House voted against formally supporting the invasion, it did not pass a bill which would have restricted funding to the military operations there. However, Republican opposition to cutting funding was not clear cut; 89 Republicans out of a total of 240 voted against funding cuts, meaning about 60% of Republicans voted in favour of cutting funding. It seems, therefore, that Republicans may be beginning to split on foreign policy - there are those willing to pay lip service to opposing Libyan intervention for political gain, and there are those who genuinely oppose action there. This potentially weakens the extent to which they can attack Obama during the 2012 election, as they were not united in their opposition. It seems that supporting continued funding was the most sensible option to take - even if they opposed the war, it would not be in the GOP's interest to be blamed for equipment shortages or soldier fatalities, especially as it is the party more closely connected to the armed forces and linked with patriotism. Moreover, it would not be in the USA's interest to withdraw now, as other nations would not be able to pick up the slack. It would likely mean a more vociferous anti-American Gaddafi returning to power and posing a future threat.

Just looking through the way members voted, I was surprised to see Ron Paul  voted against cutting funding for Libya. He often suggests that the US need to stop getting involved in international conflicts and should only act when its security is directly threatened. However, I knew my hero wouldn't let us down - he explained his reasons for voting as he did. He suggested that the legislation, whilst cutting funding, would give Obama legitimacy to act in Libya, which Congressman Paul argues he does not have. He suggested that US action in Libya is "forbidden by the Constitution", but that the House voting on the legislation regarding funding for action there would give the President legitimacy to act there which he currently lacks.

How, then can Obama make the case to uncertain Republicans that they should support the mission in Libya. Economics and trade. Obama cannot be directly involved in this and there must be no documentation making the policy official, because Obama likes to pretend he's got a moral high ground and needs to distance himself from this strategy. Instead,  representatives of the executive can converse behind-the-scenes with individual Republicans about the economic potential of Libya. Similar to Iraq and Afghanistan, a democratic and relatively pro-US government can be set up, providing the opportunity for trade and for businesses to expand there. More importantly, Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa. If the US can get more direct access to these, it could mean contracts for US drilling companies and lower oil barrel prices, both of which are very good for the US economy and international trade. Such discussions would need to be done privately, since neither the international community would be pleased about the US thinking about how Libya can best serve its own interests. Can such discussions be kept private? Probably not - it's bound to leak, but since Obama is not directly involved he can deny all knowledge of the strategy and sack those involved, claiming they were acting without his consent and he finds their views deplorable. He just needs to make sure he's not recording conversations in the Oval Office; we know how that turns out. I'm feeling a little too much like Machiavelli at the moment, so am going to stop. (Amateur political and electoral strategist still available for hire. Can put his moral compass in a draw and lock it away. Can lie on paper, but not in person. No qualms with acting semi-legally. Can give evils to dissenters. Rarely sleeps. Will work for food or best offer.)

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