Showdown Looms Over Libya

A major showdown between Congress and President Obama over continuing U.S. military participation in efforts to topple the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi looms closer as the conflict that was to last days rather than weeks enters its fourth month.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R.-Ohio)—saying the Obama administration is in violation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution—is threatening legislation to cut off funding for the U.S. war effort that is costing the Pentagon, and thus U.S. taxpayers, between $40 million and $60 million a month.

The House has passed a nonbinding resolution slamming Obama for failure to give a compelling rationale for the conflict.

Democratic Rep. Dennis Kusinich (Ohio), with colleagues from both sides of the aisle, is suing the administration in federal court to cease our participation in the conflict, which has no end in sight.

Meanwhile the President—once a banner-waver for congressional oversight of U.S. military action—shows what could be described as disdain, or nonchalance, for the clamor.

“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” he told the Boston Globe in 2007.  His current homily:  Because U.S. forces are presently in a supporting role in the NATO bombing campaign against Libya, the United States is not involved in hostilities.  Therefore Public Law 93-148—the War Powers Resolution of 1973—does not apply, and his hands are not tied by its legalities.

“Spending a billion dollars and dropping bombs on people sounds like hostilities to me,” Sen. Jim Webb (D.-Va.) said in a news interview.

Obama’s Libya adventure began March 19, when U.S. warships unleashed waves of cruise missile strikes on the North African nation is support of a U.N. resolution—given after U.S. lobbying—that approved armed action to protect Libyan civilians and armed dissidents from massacre amid rebellion against the regime.

The lobbying and bombing came as the so-called “Arab Spring” of popular protests spread to the oil-rich nation following the overthrow of repressive leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, and as the United States scrambled to respond in a way in which it would not look like it was opposed to pro-democracy movements.

Operation Odyssey Dawn, as Washington called it, became a NATO-led enterprise 12 days later.

Bruce Ackerman and Oona Hathaway, professors of law and political science at Yale University, however, note that “transfer” of leadership needs to be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

“It is sheer fiction to suggest that we are no longer a vital player in NATO’s Operation Unified Protector,” they said.  “This is especially so when an active-duty American officer remains at the top of NATO’s chain of command.”

Manned U.S. aircraft no longer conduct bombing missions, but a Pentagon memo reportedly shows that as of mid-May, the United States was conducting 70% of reconnaissance missions, more than 75% of refueling flights and 27% of all air sorties in the conflict.

The U.S. has about 75 aircraft, including drones, involved in the operations, and since the end of March has conducted about 2,600 aircraft sorties and about 600 combat sorties, it said.

Obama’s critics argue that’s a lot of money and materiel being poured into a civil war that outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said was not a vital national security interest.

In his speech to the nation at the start of the war, and two months later in a “report” to Congress, Obama indicated his actions were “consistent” with the War Powers Resolution.  His use of the word “consistent” is important.  At no time did he use the word “accordance” or indicate he accepted that the law applied.

The War Powers Resolution, passed in 1973 over the veto of President Richard Nixon, was designed to limit a president in placing U.S. armed forces in hostilities without a declaration of war by Congress, but still leave the President leeway to respond to attacks on U.S. forces, pressing threats to national security and other emergencies.  A provision of the War Powers Resolution requires a President to inform Congress of a military action under the act within 48 hours of its occurrence and again at the 60-day mark.  If no congressional resolution is passed supporting the deployment of forces within those 60 days, military operations must end within the next 30 days.

The 90-day mark for Obama was last Sunday.

Every President has opposed the measure as unconstitutional.  But, the Congressional Research Service says 111 reports were nonetheless submitted to Congress from 1975 through 2003, most of them after the fact, because the operations were of short duration.

President Obama, however, says the law does not apply to his Libya war making.  According to a report in The New York Times, top White House legal advisers had told the President otherwise, but he overruled them.

As President Bill Clinton attempted to parse, dissect and define the meaning of the word “is” in his testimony in the Monica Lewinsky affair, the present commander-in-chief appears to be doing the same with the definition of “hostilities.”

The Congressional Research Service, in a report on the War Powers Resolution and its provisions, explained that the word “hostilities” was substituted for the phrase armed conflict during a subcommittee drafting process because it was considered to be somewhat broader in scope.

“In addition to a situation in which fighting actually has begun, hostilities also encompasses a state of confrontation in which no shots have been fired, but where there is a clear and present danger of armed conflict,” it said.

Obama apparently has other ideas.  Unfortunately, Congress says his rationale for Libya intervention and the endgame is not properly being spelled out despite White House claims to the contrary.  Once again, it appears there is a dispute over the meaning of “report” and “consultation.”

“The accumulated consequence of all this delay, confusion and obfuscation has been a wholesale revolt in Congress against the administration’s policy,” said Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.).

That assessment can’t be shrugged off by the commander-in-chief as a partisan comment.  McCain, although a Republican, supports military action in Libya and has even called for the use of greater force to remove Gaddafi.