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The second front in the Libyan war: Washington


The White House choked inboxes across Washington on Wednesday evening with a flood of documents in an aggressive defense of the international intervention in Libya.

It sent out a detailed accounting of "United States Activities in Libya," to counter accusations it wasn't being transparent, which included a rundown of all the times administration officials have consulted with or testified before Congress. It broke the costs of American participation down to tens of thousands of dollars, and revealed that it has spent about $716 million so far. The administration expects its Libya costs to reach about $1.1 billion if operations keep up until Sept. 30. And it included the names -- but not the full texts -- of classified supplemental documents that members of Congress will have a chance to look at:

"Importance of U.S. military to opposition groups;" "Assessment of extremist groups in Libya;" and "Threat assessment of MANPADs, ballistic missiles and chemical weapons in Libya;" were three of the intriguing titles.

But perhaps most important of all, President Obama made clear on Wednesday that he believes the American participation in the Libyan intervention does not run afoul of the War Powers Resolution. American troops aren't in sustained combat, he argued, and the U.S. military is only contributing "unique capabilities" that its allies don't have, including aerial refueling, the suppression of air defenses and the use of Predator attack drones.

Obama's argument is that U.S. "kinetic" operations ended April 4, when NATO took command of the Libyan operation. That was well within the 60 to 90 day window under which a president must consult Congress about a foreign intervention, the White House says, and everything that has happened there since doesn't count -- even though American weapons have killed Libyan soldiers and destroyed Libyan property many times since.  The official response so far from congressional opponents so far has been somewhat muted, as people try to digest all this paper, but look for things to heat up -- especially on the president's argument about his war-making authority.

The powers of the president have increased grandly over the history of the United States, especially over the last several decades and especially as regards the president's war-making power. President Truman struck one of the biggest blows: He invited congressional leaders to the White House after he'd committed American troops in Korea, and only then to tell them he'd done it -- not to ask them. There were strategic and political science reasons: Parties want the presidency to be powerful when they hold it, so they've quietly tolerated increases even by their opponents -- witness Obama's willingness to assume almost all the muscular authorities President Bush had taken on by the end of his tenture. (Think about this: The United States now has what is effectively a standing kill list -- if your name is on it, even if you're an American, you're gonna get dead.) Congress has been only too glad to cede much of its authority, both deliberately and unconsciously. Voters, who can't be bothered with politics most of the time, ascribe almost kinglike powers to the president: We talk about a political leader executing such miracles as "creating jobs," or being asked "what he would do" -- as if it were only up to him -- about health care, or Social Security, or the deficit, etc.

Even Congress' beloved War Powers Resolution is riddled with flaws that reveal its origins in compromise: It doesn't say the president is is always required to consult Congress when he commits military forces -- it says "in most instances." And it doesn't require the president to "obtain the consent of Congress," or some such phrase; it requires him to "consult." And more basically, even though it's viewed as an attempt by Congress to reclaim some war-making power, it essentially gives the president a free war for 60 to 90 days -- because, of course, Congress gave itself 30 days to decide what to do after receiving whatever "consultation" a president decides to send. So the War Powers Resolution was never perfect, and Obama, having now set the precedent that he, as president, has the right to determine what constitutes "war" and whether or not that falls under the resolution, has dented it once again.

From the White House's perspective, the Libya intervention actually was a perfect argument for the War Powers Resolution: Obama, having spent weeks wrangling international support, feared that Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi was on the verge of sacking and destroying the rebel-held city of Benghazi. Thousands, tens of thousands of lives were at risk. There wasn't time, the president argued, to go to Congress -- and besides, his documents from Wednesday point out that he met with legislative leaders from both houses before the shooting started. But many rank and file Republicans consider national security and war to be their issues, and it rankled them to feel left out of the Libya intervention, so they've decided to raise hell.

You could argue the War Powers Resolution comes from a different time: America hated the Vietnam War, where hundreds of Americans were dying every week; it hated that President Nixon escalated the war to Cambodia; and most of all, it hated that it had been lied to by any number of its presidents. But in the 21st century, when the United States has troops around the world in operations it acknowledges and those it doesn't, it may not make sense for the president to have the same restrictions on his ability to order troops into action. Even the president's current critics seem to agree: You read here this week that the U.S. is reportedly building a secret airbase in the Middle East to conduct a clandestine campaign of drone attacks against Yemen, but no one in Congress is arguing that it should have a full debate in open session about the details of who, where, when and how. The president ordered American special operators over the borders of a sovereign power to kill a man living there, and however many others they needed to, and House Speaker John Boehner didn't step up and rail against Obama for overstepping his bounds.

Hey, you say, this is all mixed up -- it's not the same thing. Exactly. Like his predecessor, Obama is arguing that war in the 21st century has outpaced the laws and practices that used to govern it. Providing logistical support, blowing up the occasional anti-aircraft radar, or dropping a Hellfire missile down a chimney? That's not "war" these days, Obama says -- that's business as usual. Maybe. But if it's not war, than what is anymore? The era of neatly defined, set piece battles, where your tanks blow up the bad guy's tanks and then he puts up a white flag and it's over -- that's gone. Does the Whack-A-Mole nature of security and counter-terrorism today mean the president has free reign to order low-level violence anywhere and anywhere he wants? Obama says yes. Once again, a president has leapfrogged the legislative branch, and it has to determine how it will keep up.

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