James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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The White House’s Libya Justification

by James M. Lindsay
June 16, 2011

President Barack Obama makes remarks about the situation in Libya in the East Room of the White House on March 18, 2011.

President Barack Obama makes remarks about the situation in Libya in the East Room of the White House on March 18, 2011. (Jim Young/courtesy Reuters)

The unclassified section of the report on Libya that President Obama sent to Capitol Hill yesterday is now available. Only one paragraph in the thirty-two page document speaks directly to Speaker Boehner’s question from Tuesday: What is the legal justification for continued U.S. military operations in Libya? Here it is:

The President is of the view that the current U.S. military operations in Libya are consistent with the War Powers Resolution and do not under that law require further congressional authorization, because U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of “hostilities” contemplated by the Resolution’s 60 day termination provision.

The report goes on to say that U.S. military operations are:

Limited to the terms of a United Nations Security Council Resolution that authorizes the use of force solely to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under attack or threat of attack and to enforce a no-fly zone and an arms embargo.

Of course, President Obama says publicly with some regularity that “Qaddafi must go,” endorsing a goal not explicitly outlined by Resolution 1973. But for the purposes of responding to growing dissatisfaction on Capitol Hill, White House lawyers are defining the mission solely in terms of protecting civilians.

How is this going over with Speaker Boehner? Not so well. The Washington Post reports that Speaker Boehner says Obama’s claim that the Libyan mission is such a “limited” operation that it does not require congressional approval  does not “pass the straight face test.”

So who do you think has it right: Obama or Boehner?

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Tony Shahnami

    Libya is sending his thugs to Southern Europe and Iraq to retaliate against EU community and our Soldiers in Iraq, Why we picked him over Syria, that’s a question needs to be answered.
    President should outline his strategy towards Libya, with full support of Congress. That’s the long and short of it. Otherwise, it will drag on to become another crisis with no end ……

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    Whatever rationale is used, Congress should shut this Libyan operation down pronto. It is obvious that the bombing is of the “shock and awe” type used in Baghdad and Belgrade, and designed to weaken the resolve of the citizens to support Gaddafi. As such, it is directed against civilians and likely falls under the category of a war crime and/or crime against humanity. I’m sure Congress can pull something out of this mix to justify ordering a cessation of American participation in the NATO action. My guess is that merely saying that Gaddafi must step down is an act of war, and the president is not authorized to make such a statement or demand. He is acting beyond his authority by doing so, and should be checked by Congress. Congress does not need a law, of course. It can impeach the president. There is wiggle room in any law, so the War Powers Act may not be the best vehicle to stop the president’s war action. Not having read the full text of the act, I am not in a position to judge.

  • Posted by Garrett Mitchell

    Jim — I’d rephrase your question just a touch, and ask, instead:

    “Irrespective of whether there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ matter to be debated re: Libya and the War Powers Act, do you think it’s good politics for a President to seek Congressional approval of actions such as the Libya intervention, or to act without regard to the need for and the wisdom of it?

    “Or to put it another way, should a President (a) seek permission, (b) beg forgiveness, or (c) find a polite way to say “Next question?”

    In the view of this observer, there is more to be gained in all respects by respecting the consultative role of Congress on matters that pertain to the use of our military resources in a foreign country, regardless of whether it might legally qualify as “war” or some other noun. If it goes well, the credit can be shared, and if it does not, the President isn’t the Lone Ranger.

    I haven’t the slightest doubt that Senator Barack Obama would have been among the “howlers” if President McCain had acted without Congressional approval; and even if that weren’t the case, I expect better from this President.

    In the final analysis, I wonder if there isn’t something in the water over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that infects every inhabitant on the question of authority?

    Actually, I suspect we know the answer to that query.

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