President Barack Obama has flouted his legal and political obligations by refusing to seek congressional approval for U.S. military action against Libya. This debate is not about whether the administration has the moral high ground in joining NATO in its attempt to stop the slaughter of civilians by forces allied with the government of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The 1973 War Powers Act spells out very clearly the purview Congress has to prevent the commander in chief from making an open-ended military commitment. While other presidents also have been given wide latitude and ignored the act on occasion, Obama owes Congress and the American people an explanation of what the United States faces in Libya and a time line for getting it done.
The U.S. military joined the campaign on March 19, two days after the U.N. Security Council authorized military force against Libya to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country. NATO took over the aerial war on March 31; as of Tuesday, the alliance had flown more than 10,000 sorties, attacking Libyan military targets and command and control facilities. While the French and British have taken the lead, the United States plays a vital role with its aerial surveillance and refueling aircraft. The United States also has operated missile-carrying drones to strike against Libyan government positions.
Under the War Powers Act, the president must halt military operations after 60 days unless Congress specifically approves continuing them. That deadline passed on May 20. On Friday, the House in a bipartisan vote rebuked Obama for not seeking authorization and called on him to report within 14 days. The White House dismissed that demand Monday, saying it has consulted with congressional leaders and complied with the War Powers Act. Those limited contacts are not good enough.
Obama has struggled to find his feet on Libya from the start. It is understandable that with two ongoing wars the administration would not want to give its Libya campaign a higher public profile. But the White House cannot avoid its duty under the War Powers Act merely by taking a subordinate role in an ongoing allied military operation. And the president is ignoring the deadline at the very time allied attacks on Gadhafi are intensifying. Last weekend, for the first time, NATO used attack helicopters in assaults on Libyan forces, giving the allies a new capability against street-level government forces. It also is worth remembering that the allies' goal is not merely stopping attacks on civilians but ousting Gadhafi after 40 years in office. NATO may not have boots on the ground — the U.N. resolution expressly forbids it — but this air war has significant implications.
Obama may want to buy time as NATO ramps up the fight and as China and Russia — both of which abstained on the U.N. vote — work through diplomatic channels to remove Gadhafi. But these are the very games the Vietnam-era War Powers Act was intended to stop. Obama has an obligation to seek congressional approval, and he owes the nation a full accounting of U.S. involvement in Libya.