Obama aide defends handling of Libya

An aide to US President Barack Obama insisted
he does not need congressional authorization
to support Libyan rebels
© AFP Patrick Baz

AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama wants congressional authorization to use force in Libya but does not need it, a top aide told openly skeptical lawmakers on Tuesday amid a bitter dispute over war-making powers.

“This administration is acting lawfully, consistent with both the letter and spirit of the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution,” US State Department legal adviser Harold Koh told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Lawmakers of both major US parties have charged that Obama has violated that 1973 law, which aimed to curb US presidents’ ability to enter overseas conflicts without permission from the US Congress in the wake of the Vietnam war.

And some have charged that Obama even falls afoul of the US Constitution, which makes presidents commanders-in-chief of the military but reserves to Congress the right to declare war.

Koh’s comments came as the committee was set to debate and vote on a measure authorizing the US military role in NATO-led, UN-mandated operations against Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi’s forces.

“The urgent question before you is not one of law but of policy. Will Congress provide its support for NATO’s mission in Libya at this pivotal juncture, ensuring that Kadhafi does not regain the upper hand against the people of Libya?” said Koh.

The jurist urged senators to “take quick and decisive action to approve” that resolution and allowed, at times, that the Obama administration could have handled its relations with Congress differently on the conflict.

But Koh, speaking days after the House of Representatives soundly defeated a measure giving its green-light to the conflict, acknowledged that the administration should have communicated better with the US Congress.

“We acknowledge that there were perhaps steps we should have taken or could have taken to foster better communication on these very difficult legal questions,” Koh said.

And, he stressed, when it comes to the War Powers Act, ignored by successive presidents of both major US parties, “reasonable minds can certainly differ.”

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Obama’s former foreign policy mentor, Republican Senator Dick Lugar, bristled when Koh said US forces are not technically involved in “hostilities” in Libya as defined by US law.

Lugar cited news reports that, since NATO took over the lead for the operation, US warplanes had struck Libyan air defenses some 60 times, while unmanned Predator drones had fired missiles on 30 occasions.

“If the United States encountered persons performing similar activities in support of Al-Qaeda or Taliban operations, we certainly would deem them to be participating in hostilities against us,” he said.

Koh argued that the fact that there were no US forces on the ground and that there was a low risk of escalation or US casualties meant that the the United States was not engaged in “hostilities” under the 1973 statute.

“By that reasoning, we could drop a nuclear bomb on Tripoli and we would not be involved in hostilities. And it just goes to the sort of preposterous argument that is being made,” said Republican Senator Bob Corker.

Corker accused the administration of “basically sticking a stick in the eye of Congress” by not securing its authorization for the conflict.

“That was not our intent. And if you felt that a stick was stuck, that was not the goal,” said Koh.

Democratic Senator Jim Webb, a vocal critic of Obama’s handling of Libya, challenged Koh to explain why US forces off Libya’s coast were receiving combat pay.

“They’re also receiving it in Burundi, Greece, Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan, Montenegro, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and dozens of other countries under the same provision,” said Koh. “It doesn’t mention ‘hostilities.'”

The official also flatly denied that NATO military strikes aimed to kill Kadhafi, saying “the assassination of a head of state is restricted” under a presidential order that is “in force,” and later adding that “NATO does not target individuals.”

© AFP — Published at Activist Post with license

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