Back in 1987, the hot novelty item at the Young Republicans’ national convention was a T-shirt bearing the slogan: “He’s Tan, Rested and Ready. Nixon in ‘88.” The kids were just a little bit ahead of their time; it would take us an additional 20 years before we elected a tan version of Richard Nixon.
Barack Obama’s inner Nixon was all over the place as Congress and the national news media finally awoke to the fact the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner is now running four, count ‘em, four wars. (You know Henry Kissinger’s spleen is going to burst with jealousy at any moment.) I wouldn’t be surprised if the president, kissing his wife as he left for work one morning, accidentally called her Pat.
Whenever new evidence emerged to contradict Nixon’s Watergate coverup, his press secretary Ron Ziegler would helpfully explain that Nixon’s previous statement was not false but simply “inoperative,” as if it had run out of juice.
“Inoperative” seems the perfect word to describe Obama’s declaration, back in 2007 when he was running for the White House, that “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.”
Certainly Obama cannot believe that any more. His war in Libya is now in its fourth month, having burned off $1 billion in tax money and who knows how many tons of explosives on the thousands of sorties flown by U.S. aircraft. The “actual or imminent threat” that provoked this remains illusive. As George Will asked on TV Sunday: “Did Libya attack us? No. Was it about to attack us? No. Were we obliged by a treaty to get engaged in a civil war in a tribal society? No. Were American’s endangered? No. Find me a reason for this.”
Yet the president continues saucily to insist that he needs no congressional permission for the war. His minions either argue that plastering Tripoli with Tomahawk missiles isn’t an attack ― “a limited kinetic action,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates called it ― or that the War Powers Act, which requires congressional approval for military actions lasting longer than 90 days, doesn’t apply.
“I believe very strongly he has the constitutional power as commander in chief to take steps that he believes are necessary to protect this country and protect our national interests,” said Leon Panetta, who will replace Gates sometime this summer. “And obviously, I think it’s important for presidents to consult, to have the advice of Congress. But in the end, I believe he has the constitutional power to do what he has to do to protect this country.”
So what about Panetta ‘s complaint, back in 1983 when he was a congressman, that the Reagan administration was in “brazen disregard” of the War Powers Act for getting militarily involved in Lebanon? “It is incumbent upon this body to protect the integrity of our legislative process by asserting its legal and constitutional role in deciding the extent of our commitment in Lebanon,” Panetta said then. Inoperatively.
That annoying War Powers Act was passed in 1973 after Congress discovered Nixon had carried out a yearlong bombing campaign in Cambodia without a shred of authorization. Give Obama credit for out-Nixoning Nixon: Earlier this month, the New York Times disclosed that we’ve been bombing Yemen for two years without any messy public debate or congressional permission.
The Pentagon has been handling the job, but now the White House is turning it over to the CIA because the agency can blow things up with fewer legal constraints. How long before we see Obama on television citing the First Nixonian Principle of Jurisprudence: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”?
The Saturday Night Massacre.
Presidents have just as much trouble finding good lawyers as the rest of us. When the Watergate special prosecutor got too pushy, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire him. Richardson quit instead. Then Nixon ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to do the firing. Ruckelshaus quit, too. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork pulled the trigger in the affair that went down in infamy as The Saturday Night Massacre.
It may not have been a Saturday night when Obama started looking for a legal opinion to explain why the war in Libya isn’t covered by the War Powers Act. But the rest of the story sure sounds familiar. Caroline Krauss, who runs the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, said blowing up Gadhafi’s palace sure sounded to her like it met the definition of “hostilities,” the triggering word of the War Powers Act. Then Jeh Johnson, the Defense Department’s general counsel, said the same. Finally Obama found his administration’s Bork: State Department legal adviser Harold Koh. “We are acting lawfully,” Koh said last week. Rendering who knows how many dictionaries inoperative.
Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Florida 33132. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Glenn Garvin
(The Miami Herald) (McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)