A representative of the Obama administration engaged in political rhetoric, discussed international law and gave vague responses to justify the United States’ involvement in the Libyan conflict before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Tuesday. In a hearing intended to give the Executive Branch an opportunity to explain the legal reasoning behind the Obama administration’s insistence that it does not need congressional approval for the U.S. involvement in Libya, Harold Koh argued that United Nations support and the NATO coalition, as well as the “limited” scope of operations justifies President Obama’s actions.
Koh, a legal adviser to the President, affirmed the importance of the War Powers Resolution, but reiterated the White House’s argument that current U.S. involvement does not amount to the “hostilities” required for it to fall under the resolution because of the extraordinarily unique circumstances of the Libyan conflict. The “limited mission, exposure, escalation and military means,” ensure that no American troops are at risk and that there is a low risk of the scope of the conflict widening. He listed previous conflicts in which Presidents engaged in greater “hostilities” without being accused of violating the War Powers Resolution, such as in Kosovo and the Balkans.
He went on to acknowledge that there could have been better communications between the government branches—though Obama believed he had complied with “the letter and the spirit of the law”—but that Congress refusing to now offer full support for the Libyan mission would “only serve Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s interests.” At this point, he said, the matter is about policy, not law, about “preventing the slaughter of innocent civilians.”
Sen. Dick Lugar (R.-Ind.) questioned how the administration could support a “civil war” in one country, while ignoring atrocities against civilians by governments of other nations, such as Syria. Koh responded that the Libyan conflict is the only one that the United Nations has issued a resolution supporting and to which NATO has implemented an organized response.
Sen. Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.) blasted the administration’s “cute arguments” that are doing a “great disservice to our country.” Committee Chairman John Kerry (D.-Mass.) was quick to defend both Koh and Obama, insisting that one can’t blame the President for Congress not passing a resolution in support of military action.