I detest it when Presidents and their administration play self-evident language games to assert intellectually dishonest positions, whether it is Bill Clinton’s minions claiming blow-jobs aren’t “sex with that woman,” or Dick Cheney arguing that torturing prisoners by water-boarding technically isn’t torture. Such deceit and mendacity by the representative of the Chief Executive or the President himself vastly increases public cynicism about our government and diminishes our democracy’s most precious and endangered asset, trust.
The Obama administration, despite its leader’s stirring words in the 2008 campaign, has already shown itself capable of outrageous misrepresentations, as when it reported “jobs saved” by the stimulus package using fictional Congressional districts and counting single jobs as multiple jobs “saved.” So we shouldn’t be surprise, only nauseated, when it tells Congress, as it did this week, that U.S. participation in the Libyan uprising doesn’t fall under War Powers Resolution.
The Resolution requires presidents to get approval from Congress for armed interventions within 60 days of their initiation and to begin ending hostilities within thirty days from the deadline without such approval. Obama needed to obtain congressional approval by May 19 to keep U.S. forces in the Libyan campaign, but didn’t; now the thirty days is up.
Confronted by Congress, the Administration argued this week that it didn’t require approval under the War Powers Act because the operations in Libya “are distinct from the kind of ‘hostilities’ contemplated… U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof, or any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors.”
But as the Washington Post correctly pointed out in an editorial, the Act doesn’t define “hostilities,” so such Clintonian word-parsing is particularly disingenuous. Our planes and weapons are bombing the headquarters and abodes of the leader of Libya; the U.S. Air Force is killing Libyans. That sure sounds hostile to me. I bet the Libyans think that it is hostile:
1. Unfriendly; antagonistic.
2. Of or belonging to a military enemy.
The Post is fair and direct:
“We believe that an honest appraisal of the activities that the United States continues to engage in would put the administration squarely within the purview of the War Powers Resolution. By the administration’s own account, these include airstrikes aimed at “suppress[ing] enemy air defense,” “occasional strikes by unmanned Predator” drones, and intelligence and logistical support that aid other NATO members in carrying out their strikes.”
Obama doesn’t even have the dodge available to him that Bush did in the torture debate, claiming then and now that he approved waterboarding based on the opinion of the Justice Department. The New York Time’s Charlie Savage has confirmed that the President overruled the opinion of both the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel and the Defense Department general counsel regarding what constitutes “hostilities” under the War Powers Resolution, preferring instead the contrary (that is to say, dishonest) conclusion reached by the White House Counsel’s office and the State Department.
As Savage reports, presidents have the legal authority to override the legal conclusions of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and to act against its advice, but it happens rarely, perhaps because when it happens, we end up with positions like this one, arguing that the United States military bombing another sovereign nation doesn’t qualify as hostilities.
Philosophically, I think the War Powers Resolution is an unwise Congressional infringement on the President’s powers as Commander-in-Chief, but the law is the law. I am also in favor of the U.S. action with NATO in Libya, if not Obama’s halting, half-hearted, equivocal prosecution of it. (Why Libya and not Syria? Alas, an ethics site cannot discuss such mysteries….) Nevertheless, the Administration’s argument that the Resolution doesn’t apply isn’t even legalistic nonsense—it’s just dishonest nonsense of the kind that the President of the United Sates should not indulge in, to Congress, to the media, to the public, to anyone.