Many policymakers on Capitol Hill have assailed U.S. intervention in Libya as unconstitutional. Essentially, their argument is that U.S. involvement is tantamount to an act of war and therefore President Obama usurped Congress’s war making power established by Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution. Supporters would counter that the president is clearly acting within his authority as Commander and Chief of the U.S. armed forces and the War Powers Act cedes the president this authority. On face value, U.S. involvement gives the appearance of a conventional war by the U.S. and coalition forces against the sovereign nation of Libya. Conversely, U.S. officials have taken great pains to give the appearance that U.S. involvement is defined as humanitarian intervention.
Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, clarified U.S. involvement. While Adm. Mullen agreed with host David Gregory that the U.S. is essentially at war with Libya, Adm. Mullen added, “We are-actually started yesterday limited operation and, and narrow in scope focused on supporting the United Nations Security Council resolution which very specifically focused on humanitarian efforts protecting the civilians in Libya.”
Critics of U.S. involvement and opponents of further engagement argue that U.S. warplanes should be recalled from the region, specifically, because the Obama administration did not seek approval from the Legislative branch before acting. Opposition to the no-fly zone and other military efforts in Libya tend to fall largely along ideological lines. Opponents of the Obama administration’s Libyan effort call for more Congressional oversight because as a rule of thumb they tend to oppose the use of force in most situations.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) are the two most outspoken opponents of the administration’s Libyan policy on Constitutional grounds. They argue that Congress was not consulted before cruise missiles were launched against the Qaddafi regime and therefore President Obama’s actions are unconstitutional. Rep. Paul stated, “Let the supporters of yet another war in the Middle East come forth to make their case for a U.S. attack against Libya. I will strongly oppose such a move, but it should be very clear that if a war against Libya is to be initiated, it must be declared by the proper Constitutional authority: the U.S. Congress.”
Further, Rep. Kucinich, in an interview with The Raw Story argues, “President Obama moved forward without Congress approving. He didn’t have Congressional authorization, he has gone against the Constitution, and that’s got to be said…It’s not even disputable, this isn’t even a close question. Such an action — that involves putting America’s service men and women into harm’s way, whether they’re in the Air Force or the Navy — is a grave decision that cannot be made by the president alone.” The claims by Paul and Kucinich are perhaps a little disingenuous because Congressional leaders were briefed on Libya days before the U.S. intervened.
President Obama met with Congressional leaders in a closed-door meeting in the Situation Room at the White House. The meeting took place after the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya. In attendance were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-CA).
On March 21st the president sent a letter to Congress asserting that his decision to intervene in Libya is constitutional. The letter is an attempt to address concerns made by several policymakers that the U.S. would seek to broaden the scope of the operation to encompass a more traditional definition of a war and would be a violation of the powers afforded to the president as Commander in Chief of the U.S. armed forces.
President Obama is reassuring Congressional leaders that the mission is focused on the no-fly zone aspect of the mission established by U.N. resolution 1973 with the stated goal of avoiding a potential humanitarian disaster. Additionally, the president is asserting that his actions are constitutional and fall within the purview of the president’s authority laid out in the War Powers Act. Part of the letter reads, “The United States has not deployed ground forces into Libya. United States forces are conducting a limited and well-defined mission in support of international efforts to protect civilians and prevent a humanitarian disaster. Accordingly, U.S. forces have targeted the Gadhafi regime’s air defense systems, command and control structures, and other capabilities of Gadhafi’s armed forces.” The letter continues, “I am providing this report as part of my efforts to keep the Congress fully informed, consistent with the War Powers Resolution. I appreciate the support of the Congress in this action.” Following the letter and intent of the War Powers Act, the president must inform Congress of U.S. military actions within 48 hours.
When Kucinich and Paul made their claims about the president’s unconstitutional intervention in Libya the 48-hour period had not come to fruition. With the letter to Congress the president has fulfilled his constitutional duties. The law also establishes that if Congress does not approve further engagement within 60 days, then military operations must cease. At the present, it is not at all clear if U.S. engagement will extend past the 60-day period. If this appears increasingly likely in the weeks ahead then President Obama will be forced to consult with Congress.
Additionally, members of Congress have asserted that they might withhold funding for further operations unless their concerns are addressed. While this approach eventually worked in Vietnam and was considered during the Iraq War it is unlikely that this approach would meet with success. Libyan operations fall within the purview of the Department of Defense’s operating budget and therefore are already paid for.
Rep. Kucinich has asserted that he would attempt to halt further U.S. intervention through an amendment to the next Continuing Resolution, however Speaker John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi would not back this approach.
Aside from the complaints made by Paul and Kucinich, the uproar over the administrations handling of Libya has more to do with the fact that the president has not clearly conveyed the mission’s goals in Libya.
While Congressional leaders were briefed shortly after the U.N. vote and before the U.S. launched cruise missiles some objections have to deal with the fact that the president did not consult with Congress as a whole pertaining to steps that were being considered. Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) of the Armed Services Committee commented, “We’re neutered as a Congress. It’s like we don’t exist…I wish the president had not gone into Libya without first coming to Congress. We have for too long, as a Congress, been too passive when it comes to sending our young men and women to war.”
During his trip to South America the president has attempted to define more clearly the administration’s goals in Libya. The immediate goal is to support the U.N. mandated no-fly zone and the long-term goal is to see Qaddafi eventually step down from power.
The U.S. has instituted steps to insure that Qaddafi’s hold on power is difficult in the years ahead by freezing his assets and instituting a weapons embargo against Libya. President Obama did address these issues during a Q&A with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. Obama asserted “Our military action is in support of a international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Colonel Qaddafi to his people.”
Regarding overall U.S. policy concerning Qaddafi, Mr. Obama said, “Now, I also have stated that it is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go. And we got a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy. We were very rapid in initiating unilateral sanctions and then helping to mobilize international sanctions against the Qaddafi regime. We froze assets that Qaddafi might have used to further empower himself and purchase weapons or hire mercenaries that might be directed against the Libyan people.” While the administration has succeeded militarily in downgrading Libyan military capabilities it has failed politically to sell U.S. engagement to a war weary Congress.
In the next few days, following the president’s return to the U.S. from the Americas, Obama would be well advised to argue his administration’s policies to a Congress that has shown dissatisfaction with further U.S. military engagements. Most importantly, the president will have to disprove the notion that at the heart of U.S. intervention is regime change.