Opinion: Columnists

Obama's 'writ' unleashed war criminals


When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they made it clear that the only time the president would have the authority to use military force without prior authorization from Congress was when, as James Madison recorded in his notes from the Constitutional Convention, it was necessary to "repel sudden attacks."

It was thus symbolic that when Barack Obama announced he had ordered the U.S. military to intervene in Libya's civil war, he did not do so from the Oval Office or the well of the U.S. House of Representatives, but from the capital city of Brazil. In that speech, delivered March 19, 2011, Obama repeatedly used the first-person pronoun: "Today I authorized the Armed Forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya ... I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice, and it's not a choice that I make lightly."

On what authority had "I, Barack Obama," taken America into war? He cited United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, "which calls for the protection of the Libyan people." That resolution was passed by the member-states on the U.N. Security Council in 2011 -- the U.S., France, Great Britain, Russia, China, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Gabon, Nigeria, Lebanon, Portugal, South Africa and Brazil, which hosted Obama's war announcement.

Obama's case was plain: The governments of the foreign nations listed above -- not the constitutionally elected representatives of the American people -- had given him authority to decide whether America would go to war.

In a speech delivered from the White House a day before his Brazil speech, Obama spoke of Libya's revolutionaries as if they shared the perspective of America's Founding Fathers. "Last month, protesters took to the streets across the country to demand their universal rights and a government that is accountable to them and responsive to their aspirations," he said.

But what did Obama know about the revolutionary forces in Libya, the so-called thuwar, before he ordered the U.S. military to take up their cause? What sort of prudential analysis had he done about the potential aftermath of this intervention -- to the question of who would restore order and security in Libya and how? Why did he believe a truly representative government in Libya was likely, let alone possible?

Obama was either so mindlessly confident in Libya's post-intervention outcome or so worried about the political costs of putting "boots on the ground" that he vowed from the start that no U.S. ground forces would ever be deployed there. As "I, Barack Obama" declared from Brasilia, "[W]e will not -- I repeat -- we will not deploy any U.S. troops on the ground."

The same United Nations whose "writ" Obama said he was defending in Libya has now shown that the revolutionary forces in Libya started committing war crimes even before Obama ordered the U.S. military to intervene on their behalf. On March 2, the U.N. International Commission of Inquiry on Libya published its report on human rights violations there. "The Commission received reports of executions by the thuwar," said the report. "Over a dozen Qadhafi soldiers were reportedly shot in the back of the head by thuwar around 22-23 February 2011 in a village between Al Bayda and Darnah."

According to the U.N., the crimes of the revolutionaries mounted during the revolution and continued after it was over.

"The Commission has also concluded that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by thuwar and that breaches of international human rights law continue to occur in a climate of impunity," said the U.N. report. "The Commission found acts of extra-judicial executions, torture, enforced disappearance, indiscriminate attacks and pillage."

"No investigations," said the U.N. report, "have been carried out into any violations committed by the thuwar."

Had Obama sought congressional authorization for his use of force in Libya, as our Constitution prescribes, the members of Congress who voted for it would have shared the responsibility for this outcome. As matters stand, the responsibility lies solely and deservedly with Obama himself for exceeding his authority and intervening in a civil war he did not understand.

Examiner Columnist Terence P. Jeffrey is editor in chief of His column is syndicated by Creators.

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