Tag: War Powers Resolution

Harold Koh and the Temptations of Power

So for three months now, we’ve been at war in a country that the president’s own secretary of defense admits is “not a vital interest for the United States.” Turns out, it’s also a war that the president’s own attorney general believes to be illegal.

That’s what I get from Charlie Savage’s recent reporting on how the White House “forum-shopped” its way to its current position on the War Powers Resolution, to wit, you’re not engaged in “hostilities” if you’re hitting someone but they can’t hit you back.

As the WPR’s 60-day deadline approached, the Pentagon’s general counsel and, more importantly, the head of the president’s Office of Legal Counsel, Caroline D. Krass, advised Obama that bombing Tripoli—even if done remotely, with little risk of immediate retaliation—counted as engaging in “hostilities” under the WPR, which meant that the president would have to terminate U.S. involvement or radically scale it back after the 60-day limit. As Savage reports, “Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. supported Ms. Krass’s view, officials said”—in other words, that if the president continued bombing Libya, he’d be violating the WPR.

Ordinarily OLC’s opinion would have the greatest weight here, but President Obama went with the advice given by White House Counsel Robert Bauer and State Department Legal adviser Harold Koh—who told him what he wanted to hear.

My Washington Examiner column today focuses on Harold Koh as an object lesson in the corrupting potential of power:

Harvard’s Jack Goldsmith notes that “for a quarter century before heading up State-Legal, Koh was the leading and most vocal academic critic of presidential unilateralism in war.” On the strength of that reputation, Koh rose to the deanship of Yale Law School in 2004.

And Koh seemed to take the War Powers Resolution pretty seriously. In 1994, for example, he wrote to the Clinton Justice Department to protest the planned deployment to Haiti, which was carried out without a single shot being fired:

“Nothing in the War Powers Resolution authorizes the President to commit armed forces overseas into actual or imminent hostilities in a situation where he could have gotten advance authorization.”

Who could have predicted that his legacy at State would be reading the WPR practically out of existence?

On Thursday, Koh took point at a press conference selling the administration line. The next day, he went before the American Constitution Society, the progressive alternative to the Federalist Society, to give a strikingly self-congratulatory speech about maintaining one’s integrity in “public service.” The relevant part starts at around 33:00 in. Highlights: “I’ve lived the life I wanted to live; I’ve said the things I wanted to say”…”I still believe in my principles”…”I never say anything I don’t believe”…”if you hear me say something, you can be absolutely sure that I believe it [including “the administration’s position on war powers in Libya”]”…”if I say it, I believe it, and I intend to stand by it”…”For what is a man?/what has he got? If not himself/then he has not…” (OK, not the last bit).

As I note in the column:

John Dean, who served prison time for his role in the Watergate cover-up as a young White House counsel to Richard Nixon, once said that young people should be kept away from top executive posts.

They lacked the life experience and independence needed to resist falling under the spell of presidents who want them to bend or break the law.

Koh was in his mid-50s when he joined the administration, coming off a distinguished career built on opposition to the Imperial Presidency. Yet the lure of being “in the room” when the big decisions are made seems to have turned him into the Gollum of Foggy Bottom.

Oh, and by the way, Charlie Savage reports today that piloted strikes continued past the 60-day time limit, so even if Koh’s legal rationalization could pass the laugh test, it wouldn’t fit the facts we have.

White House: ‘We Have Never Been at War in Northafrica!’

Pardon the somewhat trite Orwell reference in the title to this post. But sometimes this administration’s wordgames make it hard to resist invoking our keenest analyst of politics and the English language.

Some months ago, the Obama team began telling us that the Libyan War wasn’t a war—it was a “kinetic military action.” (Go here to watch Defense Secretary Robert Gates try—and fail—to maintain a straight face selling that line to Katie Couric on 60 Minutes).

In April, the president’s Office of Legal Counsel made the (bogus) argument that the president hadn’t violated the War Powers Resolution because the WPR recognized his authority to engage in hostilities for at least 60 days without congressional approval.  We’re now coming up on 90.

Yesterday, in response to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) request, the president issued a new explanation for why he isn’t in violation of the WPR, which requires the president to terminate US engagement in “hostilities” after 60 days in the absence of congressional authorization. And it turns out that, per Obama, not only is the Libyan War not a “war,” what we’re doing in Libya—supporting, coordinating, and carrying out attacks—doesn’t even rise to the level of “hostilities.”

The president’s report states that he hasn’t violated the WPR, because “U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of ‘hostilities’ contemplated by the Resolution’s 60 day termination provision”:  they don’t “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.”

As Jack Goldsmith explains, “The Administration argues that once it starts firing missiles from drones it is no longer in ‘hostilities’ because U.S. troops suffer no danger of return fire.”  ”The implications here,” Goldsmith notes, “in a world of increasingly remote weapons, are large.”

I’ll say: this is an extraordinary argument: The president can rain down destruction via cruise missiles and robot death kites anywhere in the world. But unless an American airman might get hurt, we’re not engaged in “hostilities.”

Put aside the strange argument that acts of war don’t rise to the level of “hostilities.” Given that outrage over the illegal bombing of Cambodia was part of the backdrop to the WPR’s passage, it would have been pretty strange if the Resolution’s drafters thought presidential warmaking was A-OK, so long as you did it from a great height.

As legal arguments go, this is the national security law equivalent of the Clinton perjury defense. It’s the type of thing that gives lawyers an even worse name. Or maybe law professors, because, speaking of Bill Clinton, Obama’s the second former constitutional law professor in a row to violate the War Powers Resolution.

And yet, Obama continues to insist he’s in full compliance with the WPR, and he has no objection to the resolution on constitutional grounds.

God help me, I think I just felt a twinge of nostalgia for John Yoo.  Say what you will about the legal architect of Bush’s “Terror Presidency,” at least he had the courage of his bizarre convictions. When the statutes couldn’t be tortured into complete submission, Yoo would make the case that—whatever the law said—the president had the constitutional power to do as he pleased.  That’s clearly what Obama believes as well, but you’re not going to catch him admitting it.

Time Running Out in Libya?

Even defenders of broad presidential prerogatives are starting to conclude that Obama’s war in Libya violates the original legal justification for it offered by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Department of Justice.

Briefly put, the OLC said the Libyan war was not a war because the operation would be limited as to means, objectives, and duration. Thus, the OLC argued, neither the Constitution nor the War Powers Resolution constrained the president’s prerogatives.

The objective has changed from protecting civilians to regime change. The war itself has gone on now for as long as the unauthorized war in Kosovo in 1999. Jack Goldsmith concludes: “as the days drag on, and as our deep involvement persists, it becomes harder and harder to represent that this mission is limited in nature, duration, and scope.”

Congress Debates the Libya War

Better late than never.

The House of Representatives today debated two different resolutions purportedly aimed at forcing the Obama administration to comply with its statutory and constitutional obligations to secure formal authorization for the ongoing military campaign in Libya.

I say “purportedly” because it seems quite clear that the real intent of House Speaker John Boehner’s resolution was to lure away a sufficient number of Republicans who otherwise would have been inclined to vote for Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-OH) measure. Whereas the Kucinich resolution would have compelled the Obama administration to withdraw from all military operations in Libya within the next 15 days, Boehner’s resolution bars the administration from deploying ground troops, but allows current operations to continue.  The resolution stipulates that the administration must explain what the U.S. military is actually doing, and calls on the president to justify his decision to launch the campaign without first obtaining congressional approval.  Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern suggested that a strongly worded press release would have the same effect. Others noted that similar language has already been written into the defense authorization passed late last week.

Boehner’s gambit worked, for now. His resolution carried, with overwhelming GOP support. The House failed to adopt the Kucinich measure, although more Republicans than Democrats voted for the bill.  The detailed vote totals for both measures signal a growing willingness on the part of even many Republicans to question the country’s many wars.

Indeed, many were prepared to go beyond merely voting for the measure; about a dozen House Republicans (including resolution co-sponsor Dan Burton of Indiana) spoke out in favor of the Kucinich resolution. Many of these House members seemed quite eager to reassert their authority and to defend the principle of legislative control over the war power, even if that meant allying with one of the most liberal members of Congress.

At one level, it shouldn’t surprise that a number of Republicans voted for the Kucinich resolution. The war is unpopular with the American people, and their elected representatives are reflecting that sentiment. A number of speakers this morning made this point explicitly. But leaving public opinion aside, and conceding that the constitutional question has been practically rendered moot by the parade of presidents and Congresses who have summarily ignored its clear intent, there are ample opportunities for questioning the Libya war on strategic grounds, and not many solid arguments that prove the war to be serving a vital national interest.

The least compelling argument in support of the Libya intervention, in my mind, is the one offered up by Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this week, and repeated several times  in the floor debate this morning: we need to stay in Libya, not because it is in our national interest to do so (it isn’t), and not because the Libyan civil war poses a clear and present danger to U.S. security (it doesn’t); rather, we are waging a war in Libya because our allies want us to. To leave them holding the bag, as Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) explained this morning, would betray a sacred trust. Boehner echoed those sentiments, warning against a vote for the Kucinich resolution because our NATO allies have stood by us in Afghanistan, and we owe it to them to do the same in Libya.

I discussed why this rationale is particularly flimsy over at TNI’s The Skeptics earlier today, and it is featured in a just-released Cato video. As the ever-quotable Ben Friedman explains, “we should have allies for war, not wars for allies.” Meanwhile, Justin Logan notes the absurdity of U.S. taxpayers borrowing money from China to buy precision-guided munitions for Europeans to drop on Libya. If that sounds like a Rube Goldberg foreign policy, it is.

Presidents Should Obey the Law

In Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, when Chancellor Palpatine transforms the republic into an empire, Senator Amidala remarks:

So this is how liberty dies … with thunderous applause.

But it can also happen in silent acquiescence. For decades now, successive Congresses have evaded their responsibility to make decisions about the deployment of U.S. armed forces abroad. I write about the latest instance of this, in Libya, in today’s Britannica column:

Presidents have an obligation to obey the Constitution and the law. But one of the ways that separation of powers works is that each branch of government is supposed to jealously guard its prerogatives from usurpation by the other branches. Too often Congress ducks that responsibility, preferring to let presidents make decisions, make law, and make war without the involvement of Congress. As Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., explained in his book The Imperial Presidency, the expansion of presidential war-making power has been “as much a matter of congressional abdication as of presidential usurpation.”

The president is derelict in his duty to obey the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution. And Congress is derelict in its duty to assert its constitutional authority. And I’m still wondering what’s happened to the antiwar movement, which ought to be loudly protesting not just the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but the newborn war in Libya.

As George Will said last week, “even if you think the War Powers Resolution is an unwise law—it is a law.” And a former law professor who is now the president of the United States should obey the law. Will expanded on that point in his Sunday column, titled “Obama’s Illegal War,” in the old-fashioned print edition of the Washington Post.

Full Britannica column here.

The End of the War Powers Resolution

Today is the 60th day since President Barack Obama notified Congress “U.S. military forces commenced operations to assist an international effort authorized by the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council and undertaken with the support of European allies and Arab partners, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and address the threat posed to international peace and security by the crisis in Libya.”

The War Powers Resolution of 1973 said that within 60 days of notifying the Congress of the use of force “the President shall terminate the use of United States Armed Forces” unless Congress has declared war or authorized the use of force, extended the 60 day period, or is physically unable to meet because the nation has been attacked.

President Obama has a few hours to go, but I doubt that he will stop American air attacks in Libya. Indeed, the attacks have spread to Libyan ships to counter Qadaffi’s forces.

Like earlier presidents, Obama said his notification of hostilities in Libya was “consistent with the War Powers Resolution.” Now the administration has apparently decided to ignore the law completely. Obama has not sought congressional approval for the bombing. He follows the example of Bill Clinton, who ordered air strikes in Bosnia in 1995 without seeking congressional approval.

Even if you put aside the War Powers Resolution, the U.S. Constitution clearly requires congressional approval of our war in Libya. The legal scholar Michael Ramsey notes:

Every major figure from the founding era who commented on the matter said that the Constitution gave Congress the exclusive power to commit the nation to hostilities.  Notably, this included not only people with reservations about presidential power, such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, but also strong advocates of the President’s prerogatives, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.  As President, Washington on several occasions said that he could not undertake offensive military actions without Congress’ approval.  Hamilton is especially significant, because his views on the need for a strong executive went far beyond those of his contemporaries.  Yet Hamilton made it very clear that he read the Constitution not to allow the President to begin a war — as he put it at one point, “it belongs to Congress only, to go to war.”

(See also Ramsey’s article “Textualism and War Powers,” 69 University of Chicago Law Review 1543 (2002)

Candidate Barack Obama agreed in 2007 that “the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, of course, posed an imminent threat to Libyan nationals engaged in the recent civil war in that nation. How did the Colonel or his army threaten Americans?

This time around, Congress has offered less resistance than in earlier presidential uses of force in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. They have not roused themselves even to pass a non-binding “sense of the Congress” resolution that the President should seek approval. In the 1990s, there were actual debates in Congress about the wisdom and constitutionality of various wars. Now, silence. It is easy to violate the constitutional domain of a body that is unwilling to collectively defend its powers and unwilling to take up the responsibility of their exercise.

The War Powers Resolution never worked in practice as intended. It is now moribund and should be replaced by a new effort in the courts or Congress to apply the original public meaning of the Constitution and thereby right the balance between starting and making war.

Will Obama Comply with the War Powers Resolution?

Six Republican senators are challenging President Obama’s authority to conduct an open-ended war in Libya without congressional authorization. The six conservative lawmakers (Rand Paul (R-KY), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and John Cornyn (R-TX)) sent a letter to the president on May 18th asking if he intends to comply with the War Powers Resolution. The full text of the letter can be found here.

The law stipulates that the president must terminate military operations within 60 days, unless Congress explicitly authorizes the action, or grants an extension. The clock on the Libya operation started ticking on March 21, 2011. Congress has neither formally approved of the mission, nor has it granted an extension. Therefore, the 60-day limit expires tomorrow, May 20th.

Last week at The Skeptics, I noted Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he suggested that the administration wanted to comply, but was consulting with Congress about how to do so. The New York Times presented some of the creative ideas that the administration was considering in order to adhere to circumvent the law. But the senators can read the Times, too. In their letter to the president, they write:

Last week some in your Administration indicated use of the United States Armed Forces will continue indefinitely, while others said you would act in a manner consistent with the War Powers Resolution. Therefore, we are writing to ask whether you intend to comply with the requirements of the War Powers Resolution. We await your response.

Let me be clear about one thing: I’m not a huge fan of the War Powers Resolution, per se. To me, it is silly, sort of like a law that affirmed the Congress’s authority to levy taxes, borrow and coin money, and establish Post Offices. In the same section where these powers are delegated, the Constitution clearly stipulates that Congress shall have the power to declare war. So why does there also need to be legislation?

Most presidents have complied with the spirit of the War Powers Resolution, but more out of deference to the notion that Congress has some role in whether the United States goes to war, not out of genuine conviction that Congress does/should have the most important role in deciding such things. By all appearances, President Obama is bypassing the charade.

I anxiously await his response to the senators’ letter, and am likewise curious to see if other senators raise questions about the administration’s intentions.