Just months after terming the war in Libya “kinetic military action,” the Obama administration maintains that their “military operations” don’t constitute “hostilities” and thus don’t run afoul of the War Powers Act. Euphemisms have consequences.
So, too, do “military operations.” Last Friday, NATO’s mission to protect Libya’s civilians temporarily derailed when its strikes allegedly killed nine civilians in a residential neighborhood in Tripoli. NATO blamed a “weapons systems failure.” A day earlier, NATO mistakenly bombed a column of the very rebels that it seeks to aid. Just as actions too often don’t match intentions in war, words rarely match actions. As California Senator Hiram Johnson once noted, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
“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,” the executive branch reported to Congress on Friday, “because U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of ‘hostilities’ contemplated by the Resolution’s 60 day termination provision.”
The rationalization was part of a 32-page report to Congress in response to a House resolution demanding compliance with the War Powers Act. The administration won’t say it rejects the constitutionality of the War Powers Act. It contends that the missiles flying in Libya do not constitute war—or “hostilities,” for that matter. So, the president maintains that he is in compliance with a statute that demands congressional authorization of a war within sixty days of its commencement and forbids the initiation of any hostilities unless provoked by a “national emergency created by attack upon the United States.” It has been more than three months since Operation Odyssey Dawn, redubbed Operation Unified Protector, commenced, and even top administration officials concede that Libya poses no threat to the United States.
The report’s contention that the U.S. military is not engaged in hostilities in Libya “doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” explained House Speaker John Boehner. He is not alone in his dim assessment of the legality of the unauthorized Libyan mission. The New York Times reported over the weekend that top lawyers within the Departments of Defense and Justice had advised the president that continuing the U.S. role in Operation Unified Protector violated the War Powers Act. The president rejected the counsel.
Both Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor suggested that they are prepared to counteract the president’s usurpation of congressional power with legislation, possibly involving defunding the operation, as early as this week.
Republican Senator John McCain glimpses “a bit of partisanship” behind much of his party’s opposition to the president’s Libyan campaign, while GOP Senator Lindsey Graham advises that “Congress should sort of shut up” about the venture to oust Qaddafi. Democrat Dennis Kucinich is suing the Obama administration over Libya and favorably juxtaposes the last president with his successor: “President Bush came to Congress…. President Obama doesn’t feel like he needs to come to Congress.” This wasn’t what Arthur Vandenberg had in mind when he observed that politics stops at the water’s edge. But the weakness of traditional partisan alliances when it comes to the Libyan campaign infuses new meaning into the Michigan senator’s aphorism.
If Boehner regards the legal justifications in the 32-page White House as unintentional comedy, then other aspects of “United States Activities in Libya” may strike him as perplexing, as well. The report confidently says that Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), a body less than six months old, has “dedicated itself to paving the way for an inclusive, democratic process” and seeks “to build a democracy that reflects the will of the Libyan people.” The tone is less certain in discounting connections between the TNC and terrorist organizations: “We are not aware of any direct relationship between the TNC and al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Libya Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) or any other terrorist organization.” The report strangely describes Egypt and Tunisia, despite uncertainty in the wake of revolutions just months ago, as “key U.S. allies.”
The administration outlines the costs for military operations through June 3 at $715.9 million dollars. This includes personnel pay, expended munitions, supplies, and the operation of aircraft. With 112 tomahawk missiles at more than $1 million each fired on the mission’s first day, and an F-15 with a pricetag approaching $100 million lost to mechanical failure a few days later, expenses of $715.9 seem remarkably low. Could the administration be writing off war-related expenses to existing Department of Defense outlays to hide costs?
It may seem indecent not to take the administration at its word. But this is a president who calls a war a “military operation” divorced from “hostilities.” One so cynical in his use of words might be inclined to manipulate numbers, as well.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of Blue Collar Intellectuals: How the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America, forthcoming this fall from ISI Books, 2011. He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.