Obama's Libya strategy: Why the Tea Party doesn't oppose it.

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March 22 2011 11:36 AM

Weak Tea

Why the Tea Party isn't opposing Obama's position on Libya.

Rand Paul. Click image to expand.
Sen. Rand Paul is one of few in the Tea Party to oppose the Libya intervention

Over the last couple of days, since the United States joined in establishing a United Nations no-fly zone over northern Libya, Mark Williams has been yelling at Fox News and agreeing with liberals. Why are we there? Why was the intervention kicked off by a U.N. vote and not a vote in Congress?

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David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

"Dennis Kucinich and I find ourselves in the rare position of being joined at the hip," says Williams. "What the hell is the endgame in Libya? Is it to take Qaddafi out or not? There's a vast gulf of difference between aiding to help an ally recover from a catastrophe, like Japan, and jumping in here to subsidize European security and the security of despotic tribesmen."

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These musings about war, peace, and presidential power are coming from a man whom liberals associate with the worst of the Tea Party. As the spokesman for the Tea Party Express in 2009 and 2010, he called President Obama an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug" and a bunch of other things. He left the Express after a satirical email to the NAACP offended basically everyone. He's now a radio host and author who wonders what, exactly, is the point of a movement focused on the Constitution if it lets the president get away with launching military strikes without asking Congress for permission.

"We've got the Constitution of this country being absolutely ravaged," he says. "There is no governing authority except for the people of the United States or, if it grows a set of testicles, the U.S. Congress. And it would take all the radiation coming out of Fukushima to make the members of Congress grow anything."

In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution. It was supposed to require presidents to explain themselves to Congress within 48 hours of launching military actions and ask for some official declaration of hostility within 58 days after that.

And so, on Monday, Obama issued a presidential message to Congress explaining why he'd joined an "international effort" and "began a series of strikes against air defense systems and military airfields for the purposes of preparing a no-fly zone."

This was the 119th message of its kind since the passage of the War Powers Resolution. It was the first since the rise of the Tea Party, the conservative movement that defines everything it does as a way to keep faith with the Constitution. So the relative lack of Tea Party angst over the no-fly zone has been surprising. There is no discussion of Libya happening at Ginni Thomas' Liberty Central, no statement from Tea Party Patriots or the Tea Party Express.

Quite a few liberal Democrats have come out and criticized the president. There were more Democrats who criticized President George W. Bush during the run-up to Iraq, but there have been enough to generate real heat for the White House. It was Kucinich, rather than a Republican, who first floated the idea that the strikes on Libya might be grounds for impeachment; Newt Gingrich, who mused that Obama could be impeached for failing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, hasn't gone that far. Half a dozen Republicans who identify with the Tea Party have criticized the Obama administration's shoot-first-ask-Congress-later approach, but most Republicans haven't.

"This is a hot debate, the debate over war powers," says Sal Russo, the consultant behind the Tea Party Express. "One of the big components of the Tea Party is the activists who want federal government to get back to a narrow reading of what government can do. That's in keeping with the overall idea that our founders created a limited government."

But the question isn't quite settled. Historians can point to the arguments that James Madison made about war powers, or the uses Thomas Jefferson made of those powers in the presidency, and come to at least two conclusions. One: The founders saw a proper role for unilateral executive military decisions in some limited cases, and presidents don't always need to get declarations of war. (There hasn't been an official declaration of war in the United States since 1942. *) Two: The founders may have said that, but until the Cold War era, Congress did take a role in these interventions, and presidents deferred.