By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
Question: When is a war not a war? Answer: When President Obama says it’s not. That’s the disturbing message from the White House this week.
On March 19, American warships fired more than 100 Tomahawk missiles against Libyan government forces in what was called “Operation Odyssey Dawn.” We were bombing Libya, President Obama explained to the nation, in response to a UN resolution, upon request of the Arab League, and as part of a NATO operation — with the U.S., initially, in the lead.
At the time, few questioned the legality of the president’s action. True, he had not sought a congressional declaration of war, as required by Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution. But under terms of the War Powers Resolution, enacted by Congress in 1973 over President Nixon’s veto, the president has full authority to deploy the military in response to a “national emergency” — as long as he seeks authorization of Congress within 60 days or brings all troops home within another 30 days.
Here’s the rub. That 90-day grace period expires this weekend. But the Obama administration has not only refused so far to seek congressional authorization for Libya, it now says it won’t even try. The War Powers Resolution, the administration insists, doesn’t apply to Libya because what’s happening in Libya is not really a war. Or, as Bill Clinton once said, it all depends on what your definition of “is” is.
In the case of Libya, one senior White House official explained to reporters: “We’re operating in a support role. We’re not engaged in sustained fighting. There’s been no exchange of fire with hostile forces. We don’t have troops on the ground. We don’t risk casualties to those troops.” So there’s no need to worry about the War Powers Resolution.
Baloney! The fact is, we started this war and it wouldn’t be going on without us. As of June 3, the United States has spent $716 million in Libya. American military are helping plan attacks. American drones are bombing targets in Libya. CIA agents are, in fact, on the ground in Libya, aiding rebel forces. We provide 70 percent of the coalition’s intelligence capacities and a majority of its refueling assets. Libyans are dying every day because of American actions.
Not only that. In addition to gaining approval for engaging in “hostilities,” the War Powers Resolution also requires the president to report to Congress whenever armed forces are introduced into “the territory, airspace, or waters of a foreign nation.” Unless you don’t count drones or warships, in other words, we are indeed, with our partners, engaged in hostilities in Libya. To suggest otherwise is dishonest. And nobody knows that better than a former professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago named Barack Obama.
In fact, as a candidate for president, then-Senator Obama blasted President Bush for ignoring the War Powers Resolution. He told the Boston Globe: “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.” And he underscored the downside of a president acting alone: “History has shown us time and time again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch.”
Yet now President Obama is using Bush-like reasoning to avoid complying with the law. Yesterday, Bush White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales argued the Geneva Conventions ban on torture no longer applied because we were engaged in a “new kind of war.” Today, Obama White House Counsel Robert Bauer argues the War Powers Resolution no longer applies because we’re only firing missiles from drones and offshore vessels, with no boots on the ground. Both arguments are equally invalid.
What makes the Obama administration’s position on Libya even more puzzling is: The votes are there, if they want them. Rightly or wrongly, Americans always unite behind a president in time of war. There’s no doubt that a majority of Republicans and Democrats in Congress would stand with the president on a limited military operation in Libya. All he has to do is ask. Yet Obama stubbornly refuses to do so.
One thing for sure: If George W. Bush had launched a third American war without obeying the law and seeking authorization from Congress, Democrats would be raising hell. They should no less with President Obama.
© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.