Obama's novel definition of 'hostilities': Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Jun 21, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news in a live Q&A. In his most recent column, "Obama's nonsense about Libya," Robinson writes, "Let's be honest: President Obama's claim that U.S. military action in Libya doesn't constitute "hostilities" is nonsense, and Congress is right to call him on it."

Chat with Robinson at 1 p.m. ET about his column and more. Have a question? Ask now.

Hello, everyone. Welcome to our weekly chat. Today's column, for reference, took President Obama to task for his claim that the Libya intervention does not meet the "hostilities" threshold that would trigger the War Powers Act. But of course there's much else to talk about -- assorted wars, the debt ceiling, politics, etc. Let's get started.

Hi Eugene - I guess my question is to boil this down to motives. Why would Obama resist allowing this to fall under the War Powers Act? Congress, especially the Republican part of it, would certainly support the actions. So what's in it for Obama in leaving Congress out of the loop?

That's what I didn't understand. First, it seems beyond dispute that the Libya intervention does, indeed, qualify as "hostilities" that should be covered by the Act. Second, I can't imagine that the president would have had much difficulty in getting a resolution passed. Who's going to cast a vote in favor of Gaddafi? But we would have had at least something of a debate about the use of military force in such situations, and that would have been a good thing.

Your colleague Jackson Diehl had a very good column about Obama and Israel. Why does he continue to increase the pressure on our ally and look the other way towards our enemy. Regardless of what China and Russia want, this guy is a monster. Thousands have died and we have continually stayed quiet and / or asked him to change his ways. When you start having your military shell your own citizens and then also rape your women, I think its time to stop with the small talk. Why on earth, outside of the fact that Syria has more powerful allies is nothing being done to at least speak up against this? Is the events in Libya really about protecting Europe's oil supply.

Jackson is a true expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- he was an amazing correspondent there, back in the day -- but I disagree with his view that President Obama has been tough on Netanyahu. I agree, however, that the administration has been timid in its policy toward Syria. It's complicated, and the consequences of the fall of the Assad government would be far-reaching and fraught with peril. But it's a monstrous regime, and the only place the United States can possible stand is firmly against its survival.

I'm not too surprised by the fight between Congress and the War Powers Act - every President since it was adopted has said its unconstitutional, and every Congress has tried to enforce it, and the Supreme Court has always stayed out of it. I AM surprised, though, at what the President is saying. Why do you think he's not just sticking with the tried and true "its unconstitutional so I'm not recognizing it" and is instead trying to make a new (and less than stellar) excuse for not using it? This incident doesn't do much to help his credibility with those who say that he's clueless when it comes to military matters. (FWIW, I'm one of those who generally disagrees with you, but for the 2nd time in the last month or so, I think you're on with this. This is just silly.)

Thanks, but we don't agree on the "clueless when it comes to military matters" part. If anything, you could argue that President Obama has become perhaps too conversant with -- and enamored of -- the use of military force. And he did get bin Laden, after all. As to why he chose this approach, beats me. The more usual thing would be to declare the law unconstitional but then seek some kind of resolution anyway.

Gene, while I sympathize with all of the data that points to the economy determining the outcome of the election, I don't see how the GOP can win. One, the golden rule that no sitting president has lost a re-election bid during a time of war (by your count, three). Two, Bush proved that people can not be enthused by you but not like the other guy even more and, to date, it's appears that the GOP is going to nominate an "other guy" and not a potential president.

At some point, the "no president has ever won/lost re-election at a time when..." exercise become like Trivial Pursuit. Presidents don't lose when we're at war, but they don't win when unemployment is above 8 percent, but they don't lose when... I think we have to look at the specific circumstances of this election. From that viewpoint, I agree that Obama still looks hard to beat -- in part, because the GOP candidates all look weak. If the Republicans were able to come up with a stronger, more credible candidate, then we'd have to recalculate.

Would you say that Obama is as bad as G W Bush when it comes to war, national security and the patriot act? Obama despite campagining on pulling back all those issues, has started a new war, continued to keep Guantanamo open, not apologized or prosecuted those who backed torture, and approved the continued snooping on Americans. Please make your case for why someone should vote for Obama when he is just Bush Part 2?

Obama ended torture. He tried to close Guantanamo but was thwarted by numerous obstacles, the most significant being Congress. He's withdrawing from Iraq, although I believe he has taken us in the wrong direction in Afghanistan. I won't defend the extension of the Patriot Act, but I also won't buy the notion that he's no different from George W. Bush.

What do you think is the likelihood that back-channel negotiations are being conducted as we speak to exile Gaddafi to a foreign country? In such an event, mightn't US military involvement in Libya end soon?

I know that there have been attempts at such negotiations but I'm not aware of any progress. But let's say that Gaddafi jets off to some haven tomorrow. What happens next? Who takes over? Who establishes order? Who conducts the needed exercise in nation-building? It would be nice to think U.S. involvement could end quickly, but I wonder if that's realistic.

If bombing a country required the declaration of war under the war powers act, then surely we should also declare war against Pakistan which has been under constant drone attacks since President Obama took office. Therefore both Pakistan and Libya are under drone attacks. The crucial difference is in the motives behind the drone attacks. In one case we are trying to get rid of the terrorists and in the other the leader of the country. Perhaps this is what the President is thinking.

Maybe so. But in addition to the War Powers Act, there's that inconvenient line in the Constitution giving Congress the power to declare war. Does the president have the authority to conduct sustained drone attacks in ANY country, for ANY reason, without authorization from Congress? I'm not sure that he does.

Syria controls Lebanon, and is the lifeline for Iran controlling Hezbollah and Hamas. They are involved in smuggling, have killed one prime minister and launched multiple attacks against our ally Israel. They provide a buffer for Iran. I keep hearing about all this bad that could happen if Syria fell, but I don't really know how it could be worse than the current situation. I just hear vague generalities. Would you care to expand?

I tend to agree with you -- How much worse could it be? -- but I'm compelled to note that the fall of the Assad regime is not something that our allies in the region, especially Israel, would necessarily welcome. A chaotic, factionalized Syria, the argument goes, would be much worse. The problem with current White House policy is that if and when Assad falls, and I'm starting to think that could really happen, we'll be flat-footed and behind the curve. We'll be better off if we stick to our ideals. We do idealism better than realpolitik.

I predict that just as happened with Obama and Clinton, there will emerge pretty quickly an "anti-Mitter" amongst the GOP hopefuls. That person will most likely be Huntsman. He's substantive and good looking, has a nice resume, good foreign policy cred, and is Morman so you're not a bigot if you vote for him over Mitt. If electability means anything (and it might not) then Huntsman is the guy. Against this rationale there is the lengthy litany of litmuses that the GOP primary contest has become.

Exactly. I don't know why Huntsman would be any more acceptable to the far-right and Tea Party wings of the GOP than Romney. Aside from the "Obamneycare" thing, Huntsman is every bit as moderate as Romney, if not more so. And he even WORKED for Obama.


"Obama ended torture. " The enhanced interrogation techniques were actually ended during the second Bush term. Of course in lieu of torture, Obama has increased assassinations. That seems to be the new bipartisan consensus these days. I really can't find much difference in our extrajudicial killings via drone attacks and the ones that regimes in Central and South America use to do which the United States would then condemn on a regular basis.

Obama renounced the ridiculous legal "reasoning" under which the Bush administration claimed torture was permissible. You raise an interesting point about the drone attacks, however. I believe there has been far too little discussion of the moral implications of what are, indeed, extrajudicial killings. That said, as a former South America correspondent, I have to reject your analogy. What the dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and elsewhere did went far beyond anything the Bush or Obama administrations have done with drones. And while the juntas were torturing suspected leftists and pitching them to their deaths from helicopters, our government was looking the other way.

To me it's relatively simple: If the Libyans (or anyone else) conducted an "operation" such as we're doing in Libya against the United States, would we consider what the Libyans did to be "hostilities", even if they conducted their operations remotely. I'm not saying that the move against the Libyan leadership is or is not justified, but If they would be conducting hostilities or hostile actions against the United States by doing what we are currently doing against Libya, then what we're doing is hostilities or hostile actions against Libya. Why is that hard to understand? Even for an administration that may be justified in it's actions? But then I must be naive because I feel that the cost of the war should be paid for by increased taxes and/or war bonds and not simply something to be paid for in the future.

You're being naive and old-fashioned. I mean, really, using logic.

It seems to me that one of Obama's biggest problems is that he has done a terrible job communicating his policies to the public at large. And he has remained fairly quiet while the Republicans in Congress have set the agenda and the tone. Largely he has been either silent or playing catch-up. Do you think he has it in him to mount a sustained campaign telling us what he's done or doing and the reasoning behind it? Is part of the problem that the press prefers to chase meaningless horse races and drum up controversies?

Those who doubt President Obama's ability on the campaign trail do so at their own risk. That said, I've noted many times during the past couple of years that the Republican message machine was consistently quicker and more effective than its Democratic counterpart. I think the gap has closed substantially in recent months, however.

What would constitute the end of the non-hostilities? If we are droning to protect innocent citizen slaughter, how do we know when to stop?

The beginning of the end-game is when Gaddafi goes. But I have no idea how long the end-game lasts, or what role the United States plays in it.

I do know, however, that we've come to the end of the end-game of today's discussion. Thanks for participating, everyone, and I'll see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
Archive of Eugene Robinson's columns
Recent Chats
  • Next: