Obama rebuked by House of Representatives over Libya, whilst Congress challenges his authority

People look at destroyed tanks belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Reuters)

US President Obama has been facing mounting criticism for the US role in the Libya… what? War? Conflict? Bombing? Mission? ‘Operation’? You see, Obama has recently been keen to stress that the Libya… engagement is not a war amid rebukes from Congress who have been challenging his authority. Now the House of Representatives has stepped in, also rebuking Obama and refusing to authorise the US ‘mission’.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives delivered a symbolic vote on friday to reject a resolution to authorise US involvement in the Libya war. I’m going to call it a war, because I feel calling the military action anything else shapes and desensitises our response to it. Bombs are being dropped, buildings are being destroyed, lives are being lost. To call such violent action an ‘operation’ or a ‘mission’ is an affront to those whose lives are being lost, whatever side they are fighting for. It makes us forget the reality of the situation; this is not some sanitised, smooth military operation. It involves real harm and loss of life, even if those that are losing their lives are classed as “the enemy”. As Jonathon Schell writes:

“American planes are taking off, they are entering Libyan air space, they are locating targets, they are dropping bombs, and the bombs are killing and injuring people and destroying things. It is war. Some say it is a good war and some say it is a bad war, but surely it is a war.”

So anyway. I’m going to call the NATO military intervention in Libya a war, because I believe it to be so. Obama has a rejected this worldview, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The House of Representatives refused to give President Obama the authority to continue US participation in the NATO-led war against Libya, but rejected a call to cut off money for the conflict. In this sense, the House refusal is a largely symbolic gesture. Obama has said he does not need additional congressional approval, as US forces are simply supporting NATO. However, the House has shown its disproval for the ongoing war against Libya, reflecting the disenchantment in the US over the ongoing conflicts.

The House voted 295 to 123 against the resolution to authorise the war. About 70 of the president’s Democratic party joined the Republicans to vote it down. This is the first time since the 1999 Bosnian conflict that either the House or the Senate has voted against a military operation. The House ignored Hillary Clinton’s pleas against voting it down.

“The president has operated in what we now know is called the zone of twilight as to whether or not he even needs our approval,” Republican Representative Tom Rooney of Florida said. “So what are we left with?”

House speaker John Boehner said: “I support the removal of the Libyan regime. I support the president’s authority as commander-in-chief, but when the president chooses to challenge the powers of the Congress, I, as speaker of the House, will defend the constitutional authority of the legislature.”

It is clear there is growing unrest in the US against the Obama administration’s involvement in the US war. It is also evident that the ‘excuse’ of, “oh, well, we’re only supporting NATO” is not going to stick; opponents of the US involvement are, perhaps, becoming riled at the growing culture whereby the Obama administration is becoming increasingly unaccountable for its actions in conflicts.

Republican congressman Tom Rooney, who sits on the armed services committee, said: “The last thing that we want as Americans is for some president, whether it’s this president or some future president, to be able to pick fights around the world without any debate from another branch of government.”

Whether it’s the self-perpetuating “War on Terror” or NATO-involvement, the Obama administration is increasingly avoiding accountability for its conflicts and engagements. Few Republicans or Democrats would wish to be seen to be against the “War on Terror”, which began in ‘self-defence’ (right?), though opponents of the unaccountability are beginning to draw the line; the Libyan war is, rightly or wrongly, aimed at unseating a ‘dictator’ from power rather than aiming to defend US soil… but then again, I have this strange feeling of deja vu…

Libya is not a war, says Obama

A bus burns on a road leading to the outskirts of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Sunday, March 20, 2011. The U.S. military said 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from American and British ships and submarines at more than 20 coastal targets to clear the way for air patrols to ground Libya's air force. (AP)

As I mentioned earlier, President Obama has already been facing criticism from Congress. He has defended his right to take war to Libya without the approval of Congress, after Republican leaders challenged his authority. How? In his administration’s eyes, the issue is one of semantics. The US participation in the NATO-led bombings in Libya do not, in his eyes, amount to a full-blown war.

As the Guardian reported, “this week the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, wrote to Obama telling him that, under the 1973 war powers act, the president was obliged to seek congressional approval for the Libyan venture before Friday.

“The White House replied by saying the law, which says there must be a vote in the legislature within 90 days of the president taking the US to war, did not apply”.

Congress warned Obama that refusal to comply with a congressional request to seek authorisation for military action in Libya appeared to violate the war powers act.

“The combination of [White House] actions has left many members of Congress, as well as the American people, frustrated by the lack of clarity over the administration’s strategic policies, by a refusal to acknowledge and respect the role of the Congress, and by a refusal to comply with the basic tenets of the War Powers Resolution,” Boehner, the speaker of the House, stated in a letter to the president.

The White House responded to the warning with a 38-page report to Congress, describing the Libya operation not as war, but a mission to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. As stated earlier, the administration considers the war as an operation, a mission, a military ‘intervention’, shall we say, rather than considering the bombings as an act of war. And why do they not consider the bombings as an act of war? Because US troops are not directly under fire. The Obama administration only considers a conflict as being a ‘war’ when there is US soldiers at risk.

“US operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve US ground troops,” the 38-page report said.

Boehner dismissed the White House position on Thursday. “It doesn’t pass the straight-face test in my view that we’re not in the midst of hostilities,” he said. “It’s been four weeks since the president has talked to the American people about this mission. It’s time for the president to outline for the American people why we are there, what the mission is, and what our goals are.”

In an article published in the Guardian,  denounced the White House’s report, stating: “In other words, the balance of forces is so lopsided in favour of the United States that no Americans are dying or are threatened with dying. War is only war, it seems, when Americans are dying, when we die. When only they, the Libyans, die, it is something else for which there is as yet apparently no name. When they attack, it is war. When we attack, it is not.”

This is very worrying thinking from the leaders of the United States of America. Would it be naive to suggest that this worldview may represent a new age of warfare? An age of unaccountability? As Schell writes, “In the old scheme of things, an attack on a country was an act of war, no matter who launched it or what happened next. Now, the Obama administration claims that if the adversary cannot fight back, there is no war.”

In the age of the predator drone, when war can truly be waged with no damage or sacrifice, government’s can claim that bombing a country (before, a clear act of war) is simply an operation, a mission, designed to bring about a set agenda with minimum civilian casualties. Of course, civilian casualties are inevitable, but the less the better, right? When war can be waged without a soldier’s boot on foreign soil, does that end the meaning of the word, “war”?

In an act of double-think that George Orwell would be proud, War is not War – War is Peace. War is not war when there are no “active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor [when] they involve US ground troops”. But surely this means that it is in the best interests of the adversaries of the US, the ‘enemy’ that the US is (at the time) engaged with, to ‘actively exchange fire’ with US drones/planes? For then, the adversaries are suddenly turning the one-sided conflict into a war – where they are then afforded the ‘rules’ of warfare, and the US is suddenly subjected to International Law and the like? They are, essentially, suddenly held accountable for their actions, like some child that has been caught out?

Schell concurs: “It follows that adversaries of the United States have a new motive for, if not equaling us, then at least doing us some damage. Only then will they be accorded the legal protections (such as they are) of authorised war. Without that, they are at the mercy of the whim of the president.”

“The War Powers Resolution permits the president to initiate military operations only when the nation is directly attacked, when there is “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces”. The Obama administration, however, justifies its actions in the Libyan intervention precisely on the grounds that there is no threat to the invading forces, much less the territories of the United States.”

It is, perhaps, a sign of things to come. Much of the media outlets have been picking up on the government’s use of language; the subtle semantic changes that government’s implement into their vocabulary. Much like in Orwell’s 1984, governments realise the power of language and carefully shape and construct their verbiage for their benefit, be it influencing public opinion or escaping the nuances of their own laws. Those who construct the laws evidently and innately hold the power to escape the law – either overtly, by changing the very law itself, or covertly, by slipping through loop-holes and the like. By deciding that the Libyan war is actually a ‘mission’ or ‘operation’, the Obama administration has seemingly escaped accountability and the force of the law.

Schell continues: “In a curious way, then, a desire to avoid challenge to existing law has forced assault on the dictionary. For the Obama administration to go ahead with a war lacking any form of Congressional authorisation, it had to challenge either law or the common meaning of words. Either the law or language had to give.”

“It chose language.”

And as we enter an age of predator drones, “War on Terror” and a newfound distaste for ‘evil dictators’ residing in the Middle East, are we also entering an age where the self-proclaimed “protagonists” of the world (the US, the UK, NATO, and the like) are becoming unaccountable for their actions? Are we entering an age where war ceases to exist, merely because language is changing? Wars become conflicts; conflicts become operations; operations become missions; missions become peace.


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