White House: Libya Campaign Isn’t War – UPDATED

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(l to r): Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images, Rodrigo Abd / AP

The United States is not engaged in a war with Libya and the War Powers Resolution does not apply to U.S. military action there, according to two White House officials who briefed reporters on Wednesday. “We’re now in a position where we’re operating in a support role. We’re not engaged in any of the activities that over history have been considered hostilities under the stature,” said one official Ben Rhodes*, deputy National Security Advisor.  “We’re not risking troops… We’re confident that we’re operating consistent with the resolution.”

The briefing came just before the White House sent documents to the Hill explaining their position and one day after House Speaker John Boehner warned the Administration that if it did not clarify its position on Libya, it would be in violation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution by the week’s end. The resolution requires Presidents to seek congressional approval for conflicts lasting more than 90 days.

On Wednesday, Rhodes argued that the U.S. “provided the bulk of its contribution at the front end but continues to provide support” in terms of refueling, intelligence, aerial drones and infrequent manned sorties. He stressed that funding for those operations is coming out of the existing Pentagon budget — to the tune of $716 million — and President Obama would not be asking for a special supplemental for Libya. Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s ability to harm his own people has been diminished in recent months, they argued, as he has suffered political and military defections in the face of near united international opposition. The White House expects U.S. commitments through the North American Treaty Organization to decline.

On April 15, Obama, along with his French and German counterparts, wrote an op-ed calling for Gaddafi’s ouster. While the underlying justification for the operation in Libya remains United Nations resolution 1973, which simply calls for the defense of the Libyan people, “Gaddafi has shown absolutely no indication that he would remain in power and stop threatening his own people,” Rhodes said. There have been increased “entrepreneurial” diplomatic efforts to convince Qaddafi to leave Libya, he added.

Rhodes bristled when asked about Rep. Michele Bachmann’s assertion in Monday night’s GOP presidential debate that “[we] don’t yet know who the rebel forces are that we’re helping.” The Minnesota Republican is the newest member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. The official noted that in addition to meeting with them in “multiple international venues,” the White House has received members of the Transitional National Council, whose 45 members represent the various opposition factions, as has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on several occasions. “We believe that we do have a legitimate interlocutor in the TNC,” Rhodes said. “And they have a much better chance of delivering a better future for Libya than Qaddafi and his regime.” Such a good chance, the official went on to say, that they are negotiating with Congress to release some of the tens of billions of dollars in frozen Gaddafi accounts to the TNC to help fund their cause.

Regardless of the White House’s arguments, members of Congress continue to scrutinize U.S. involvement in Libya. “The creative arguments made by the White House raise a number of questions that must be further explored,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said in an e-mailed statement. “The Commander-in-Chief has a responsibility to articulate how U.S. military action is vital to our national security and consistent with American policy goals. With Libya, the President has fallen short on this obligation.”

Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich and nine other members of Congress filed a lawsuit on Wednesday to force the Administration to cease operations in Libya altogether. Bob Bauer, the President’s personal lawyer, declined to comment on pending litigation, except to point out that historically, such suits had little impact on administration policy. There are two clear cases of precedent, Crockett v. Reagan, where the courts upheld President Reagan’s actions in El Salvador and Campbell v. Clinton where courts deemed President Clinton’s intervention in Yugoslavia legal.

*The call with Rhodes and Bauer was at first on background but the White House last night agreed to let their statements stand on the record.