OPINION: 'We should have a debate on this war,' even if belated

The president of the United States has committed American armed forces to a conflict in Libya without congressional authorization or a precise explanation to the American people about our role in a coalition of nations or the scope of the mission.

The adverse consequences are evident. Important tactical decisions are being made without any overriding strategic rationale. Americans were led to believe that the goal was a no-fly zone, but coalition planes have attacked forces in the field and on military headquarters.

The lack of clarity has also damaged international support because different partners signed on to different missions. When the administration first tried to pass leadership of the mission to NATO, some allies balked. The president indicated that he felt backing from Arab League members was key to starting this military action. But now some are wavering and we don’t know the impact that will have.

Nor do we know how much money President Obama plans to spend on this war. That may depend on how long it takes to achieve our objectives. But the president took us to war without articulating those objectives, or the guidelines for success. Without saying where the money would come from, he committed us to a course that could add significantly to our budget deficit.

These issues would have had a better chance of being addressed if President Obama had sought a declaration of war from Congress, as I first urged two weeks before American cruise missiles were launched. 

A formal war declaration is not an anachronism — it’s a constitutional requirement for good reason. It forces the president to present his case in detail to the American public, it allows for a robust debate to examine that case, it helps gauge if there is sufficiently broad political support to commit American blood and treasure overseas. And it defines the role and strategy of the United States, so that potential coalition partners have no doubts — and no excuses.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, I called for such a debate prior to military action. President George H.W. Bush eventually brought the issue to the Congress, there was vigorous argumentation and a vote, and the war was prosecuted quickly with the financial and military backing of a broad international coalition.

Before the 2003 Iraq war, I co-sponsored a bipartisan resolution that would have narrowly defined the mission. Instead, another resolution passed that gave the president alone wide authority to determine the scope and objectives of the war, which evolved into a decade of nation-building.

We should have a debate on this war, even if a belated one. That debate should serve to bring the clarity that our fighting men and women deserve. We have waded into a civil war on one side without really knowing who we are supporting or what they believe.

The administration has sent mixed messages about United States’s national interest. This may be a humanitarian war to protect civilians, or a means to force Moammar Gadhafi from power, a goal of President Obama’s. If it is the latter, the president should conduct a coordinated diplomatic and military strategy that steadily degrades Gadhafi’s forces while increasing the pressure on him to leave.

If our intervention is designed only to prevent atrocities committed by Gadhafi against an outgunned opposition, the president must acknowledge that a protracted stalemate is possible. Either way, Congress and the American people should have a chance to debate a coherent strategy and reject or support the course the White House proposes.

The president must be specific about the financial costs of this war, who is sharing them and who would be responsible for rebuilding a post-Gadhafi Libya. He should also state whether he will seek contributions from oil-rich Arab states, as I urged before the war began.

Perhaps most importantly, we must define the standards for future American intervention. Civilians are being shot in other countries in the region, by governments that are our enemies and by those that are our friends. We cannot enter into every civil war and solve every problem. With roughly 145,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a $1.5 trillion budget deficit, our economy and the resilience of our armed forces are already at great risk. A clear assessment of America’s true national interests in the region is essential so that we don’t back into the next war, as we did this one.

Lugar is ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.