Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Libya, Obama, and the War Powers Act

Remember during the Monica Lewinsky scandal when then-President Clinton responded to a question by quibbling with terms? "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," he told his interlocutors, and the moment became emblematic of Clinton's lawyerly slipperiness--not a great moment, even if you thought he was wrongly pursued.

Well, war is a lot more serious than a consensual affair in the life of a nation, but it appears that President Obama is determined to create a similar moment for himself:
In a broader package of materials the Obama administration is sending to Congress on Wednesday defending its Libya policy, the White House, for the first time, offers lawmakers and the public an argument for why Mr. Obama has not been violating the War Powers Resolution since May 20.

On that day, the Vietnam-era law’s 60-day deadline for terminating unauthorized hostilities appeared to pass. But the White House argued that the activities of United States military forces in Libya do not amount to full-blown “hostilities” at the level necessary to involve the section of the War Powers Resolution that imposes the deadline.

The two senior administration lawyers contended that American forces have not been in “hostilities” at least since April 7, when NATO took over leadership in maintaining a no-flight zone in Libya, and the United States took up what is mainly a supporting role — providing surveillance and refueling for allied warplanes — although unmanned drones operated by the United States periodically fire missiles as well.

They argued that United States forces are at little risk in the operation because there are no American troops on the ground and Libyan forces are unable to exchange meaningful fire with American forces. They said that there was little risk of the military mission escalating, because it is constrained by the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized use of air power to defend civilians.
We're only a little bit at war, you see. Not even enough to count!


The War Powers Resolution is actually fairly clear on this, from my reading: Just because the United States is in a support role doesn't mean that President Obama can ignore the resolution. The act specifically states the president must report to Congress when U.S. forces "command, coordinate, participate in the movement of, or accompany the regular or irregular military forces of any foreign country or government when such military forces are engaged, or there exists an imminent threat that such forces will become engaged, in hostilities." It's not just when American trigger-pullers are pulling triggers, in other words, but when our forces are actively supporting other forces engaged in combat.

Under the most Obama-friendly reading of the circumstances—that we're only supporting the fighting countries, not fighting ourselves—he is still required to be accountable to Congress. Instead, his legal team has ignored the definition in the law and created its own.

I supported Obama in 2008 because he said things like this: "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 lied. And he's trying to elide that fact with an unseemly parsing of words. How embarrassing. How wrong.


emawkc said...

Okay. So is it time for an impeachment?

Joel said...

I'm not *there* yet-and I'll be cranky if Obama is impeached while GWB skated free on torture. But maybe what needs to happen is for Congress to do its job. That would help.

Monkey RobbL said...

In lieu of impeachment, there's always a lawsuit: