Libya conflict: Backlash ensues to Obama's refusal to seek Congress's nod

Obama says US military intervention in Libya does not require consent from Congress. Many lawmakers and pundits say otherwise. The rub is over the definition of 'hostilities.'

By , Staff writer

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    A Libyan fighter at the front lines near Misrata.
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The Obama administration is increasingly isolated at home over its handling of the Libya conflict – mainly over its refusal to seek Congress’s consent for continued US military operations against the Qaddafi regime, but also over the US role in the Libya campaign in the first place.

The White House found little support this week for its assertion that US internvention in Libya does not amount to “hostilities.” Under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, a president can singlehandedly engage the nation in “hostilities” for 60 days, but thereafter he either needs congressional approval to continue or has 30 additional days to withdraw US forces. That 90-day free pass is over on Sunday, critics say.

From Democrats to Republicans, from Fox News commentators to the Washington Post, criticism – even guffawing – resounded over the administration’s reasoning that US activities do not rise to the level of “hostilities.” No words are minced in the excerpts below.

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• “An honest appraisal of the activities that the United States continues to engage in would put the administration squarely within the purview of the War Powers Resolution,” the Washington Post editorial board opined Thursday, noting continuing US airstrikes, use of Predator drones, and logistical and intelligence support.

• “It is absurd to say that US forces are engaged in Libya for purely humanitarian missions,” wrote Fox News contributor and former State Department adviser Christian Whiton, on Friday. “Were this true, we would not be striking Tripoli directly, including repeated strikes on Qaddafi’s headquarters.”

• And from House Speaker John Boehner on Friday: “The White House’s suggestion that there are no ‘hostilities’ taking place in Libya defies rational thought.”

That doesn’t mean the War Powers Resolution itself is universally acclaimed. The sources cited above all dislike it at some level, and many legal experts suggest its check on presidential power to command the armed forces would not stand up in court. Previous presidents have circumvented or ignored it.

But Boehner, sensing that the administration's position is being greeted with either skepticism or ridicule, sought to seize the moral and political high ground. “Despite the constitutional concerns anyone may have with the statute, the War Powers Resolution is the law of the land and cannot simply be ignored,” he said Friday.

So, if Congress is mad and isn’t going to take it anymore, what are its options?

Boehner has suggested that the Republican-led House may invoke the power of the purse and find ways to defund military operations in Libya. Antiwar Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio said he will introduce just such a measure as part of a defense spending bill. (Or perhaps Boehner and President Obama will devise a less confrontational solution while playing golf together on Saturday.)

Moreover, 10 House members (Democrats and Republicans among them) sued in federal court this week, charging that the executive branch is violating the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution by not seeking congressional approval to continue US military actions, which are part of a NATO-led campaign.

On the Senate side, where there is a bit less restlessness over Libya, Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts are expected to put forward a resolution in support of US intervention. Both senators back a continued US role in the Libya campaign, which as originally crafted in March was intended to prevent Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi from slaughtering rebels and protesters who were rising up against his regime.

The Obama administration would “welcome and support” such a resolution, said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday, even as he insisted that such backing is not required because the War Powers Resolution “does not apply.”

Notably, Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate and a longtime ally of Mr. Obama, broke with the president over the “hostilities” matter. He, too, supports US intervention, but he says Congress should authorize it. He plans to submit a resolution that would include some limitations: No ground troops could be used in Libya, and the seal of approval would be good only through the end of the year.

It’s hard to say how Congress would vote on Libya, if it ever comes to that. Most lawmakers are upset at what they perceive to be a White House snub of Congress. Some are antiwar or isolationist, saying there’s no compelling US interest for continued intervention there. Still others are budget hawks, noting the estimated $1.1 billion price tag if the Libya campaign lasts through Sept. 27 – which is how long the Obama administration has committed to stay. Perhaps the vote would be close enough that White House would rather not test it.

For its part, the administration may be hoping the facts on the ground in Libya will make all this moot. Indeed, the NATO bombing campaign has intensified in recent days, according to news reports from Tripoli, and Qaddafi has already felt several near misses.

Libya’s prime minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, on Friday accused NATO of a “new level of aggression,” according to a June 18 Associated Press report. He also said it is now targeting civilian buildings. A NATO spokeswoman retorted that Qaddafi is the one “brutally attacking the Libyan people,” the AP report said.

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