The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

War Powers, My Ass…

July 9, 2011

The House of Representatives recently just voted on a bill that would require the U.S. to remove its forces from Libya on the basis of the War Powers Act, arguing that the President had not received the Congressional go-ahead to keep the military in hostilities past a certain time threshhold. It earned the votes of 148 Congressmen of 435, 87 Republicans and 61 Democrats. The media presented it as demonstrating the muscles of the Tea Party libertarians defending congressional prerogatives against executive encroachment in true Jeffersonian tradition. I call bullshit and I have the crude data to prove it. Actually anyone with web access and a calculator could do the same.

I am always skeptical of these institutional arguments, having encountered them in my research. A common refrain in the literature on the domestic politics of the creation of the League of Nations, the UN, and NATO is that opponents were defending legislative rights. The truth is that these were almost always just cudgels for those who opposed the idea behind the treaties. If you don’t want to participate in collective security, you can tell the world to go to hell, or you can say that the President does not have the authority to make that commitment. Or you can say both. Most said both, but the latter was a disingenuous argument. In politics! Yes, I’m sorry. It’s true. Look away, child. Look away.

Of the 87 Republicans who voted for this bill, only 17 also voted against the extension of the Patriot Act. That’s only 20%. I personally do not get really vexed about whether the government knows what I check out at the library or listens to me on the phone, although I respect those who do. I am not checking out the Anarchist Cookbook and almost all my phone calls concern what to pick up at the grocery store. But if there is a true libertarian litmus test, that’s it. There are very few genuine libertarians in the world and even in the Tea Party. Not wanting to extend healthcare benefits to the uninsured does not make you a libertarian– it makes you a dick. I will give the genuinely libertarian House members a shout out, those who voted against the Patriot Act and for this bill (Amas, Bartlett, Brown, Campbell, Duncan(TN), Gibson, Johnson(IL), Jones, Kingston, Labrador, Mack, McClintock, Paul, Rose, Schweikert, Woodall, Young(AK). At least you have principles.

What this really boils down to is either 1) straight partisanship (giving Obama a hard time), or 2) ideological opposition anything that smacks of humanitarianism as not being in the national interest. I would put my money on #2. It is consistent with the impulse of Republicans of all types, libertarian or otherwise, which is not to care much about non-Americans. That is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Not everyone is an idealist in foreign affairs. So I wish they would just say it, Michele Bachmann style instead of hiding behind some red herring about the Constitution.

The Democrats who voted for were somewhat disingenous too. I think they genuinely don’t like executive power over foreign policy and war-making, but I think mostly they don’t like war. This was the left wing of the party. But at least they voted against the Patriot Act extension (although probably not against the health care act. Like I said, there are very few libertarians).

+ posts

Rathbun is a professor of International Relations at USC. Brian Rathbun received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 and has taught at USC since 2008. He has written four solo-authored books, on humanitarian intervention, multilateral institution building, diplomacy and rationality. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in International Organization, International Security, World Politics, International Studies Quartlery, the Journal of Politics, Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, International Theory, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution among others. He is the recipient of the 2009 USC Parents Association Teaching and Mentoring Award. In 2019 he will be recognized as a Distinguished Scholar by the Diplomatic Studies Section of the International Studies Association.