It is now early Friday, May 20, the 60th day since President Obama informed Congress that he had begun attacking Libya (the attacks technically began on the weekend, March 19, but were reported to Congress on Monday, March 21). This is particularly important because, under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the President is obligated to obtain Congressional authorization for any use of military force lasting longer than 60 days, or halt all hostilities.
Today then marks a serious test for that act of Congress, because President Obama indicated yesterday during his speech that the war would continue, and has not sought any Congressional approval. Under 50 USC 1541-1548 the War in Libya will be, barring some surprising action, illegal.
A number of Senators have sought clarification on the president’s intentions, most recently in a letter submitted by six of them earlier this week. No official reply has been noted, and the White House took the rather unusual move of pulling Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright from a Senate hearing at the last minute on Thursday. The hearing was canceled.
It seems the move was designed to avoid answering uncomfortable questions, yet the State Department was openly using the War Powers Resolution as a justification for the use of force without Congressional authorization as recently as last week, and further questions are bound to come up.
Short of some rather dubious suggestions that the president might order the war “paused” for a few minutes so he could restart it and claim a fresh 60 days (which would probably create even more opposition for the war’s shaky justification), the administration seems to be hoping that Friday, May 20 will come and go without notice. Clearly it will not.
But with the administration openly conceding early on that the war was not a “vital” interest of the United States in the first place, their options are limited. The war is unpopular, and it is unimaginable that a last second vote could be mustered in Congress to authorize it, particularly when the only reason for such haste is that the president totally shirked his legal requirements in starting the war in the first place.
The likely option, then, seems to be ignoring the law and assuming that the Senate will not react. Though it is unclear if there is much Senate support for taking him to task over the war, such a challenge would, if ignored, allow the president to commit to open-ended wars on literally no pretext and fearing no legal recourse. Such a claim must eventually face Congressional opposition.