President Barack Obama is putting the campaign against Moammar Gadhafi at risk by refusing to seek congressional approval for U.S. military action in Libya. Antiwar members of the House said they will attempt this week to cut off appropriations for America's military contribution to the NATO-led campaign. This is not the best way to force Obama to comply with his duty under the War Powers Act to obtain congressional approval for an extended U.S. military commitment. But Obama has a legal obligation to go to Congress, and the nation should not be undercutting the NATO campaign or the cohesion and credibility of the alliance.
Obama has only himself to blame for the move in Congress to halt or scale back American involvement in NATO's Libya campaign. The United States joined the operation March 19, two days after the U.N. Security Council authorized military force against pro-Gadhafi forces in an effort to stop the government's attacks on civilians. Under the War Powers Act, Obama had until May 20 to seek congressional approval to extend operations. That deadline passed more than a month ago. While past presidents have also sidestepped the law at times, the Libya campaign is far too costly and reaching to give Obama a pass.
The president made matters worse last week by defending his actions on the flimsiest grounds. Obama insisted he did not need Congress' approval because the United States was playing a limited role under NATO. But top attorneys at the Pentagon and the Justice Department had a different view. And the issue is not the level of American involvement but the deployment of U.S. forces to active and ongoing hostilities.
American forces have flown about one-fourth of the 12,000 aerial sorties in the campaign against Gadhafi. American forces provide about two-thirds of the intelligence capabilities for the NATO operation, plus the majority of its refueling capacity and other logistical support that the administration concedes is "crucial" to NATO. The United States also operates missile-firing drones against Gadhafi targets, and America had spent $716 million on the operation as of this month. With NATO's three-month extension of the air war, to September, the cost to U.S. taxpayers is expected to top $1 billion. Does Obama really believe this constitutes a commitment so narrow that the Congress cannot even engage the administration in a debate?
The president may be stalling for time, as NATO ramps up what has been a rocky campaign, and as European and African leaders intensify the diplomatic pressure on Gadhafi to leave. But forcing the president's hand by cutting off appropriations for the Libyan campaign would send the wrong sign. It would weaken the NATO operation at a critical juncture, undermine the credibility of the United Nations and cause Washington to lose face as a reliable partner. The more appropriate course — and one required by law — is for the president to seek Congress' approval for continuing military operations. Obama has plenty of good reasons to join the fight against Gadhafi. But Americans deserve to hear the case.