The Obama administration started bombing Libya a few years back without Congressional authorization. That was itself legally dubious, and contrary to campaign promises made by the president not to engage in non-self-defense military action without Congressional approval.* But beyond that, the War Powers Act requires that the president notify Congress once “hostilities” have begun. This starts a ninety-day deadline; after ninety days, hostilities must cease unless Congress has consented.
Obama’s Defense Department lawyers told him that the War Powers Act was triggered and he had to notify Congress. So did his lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel. But Obama wanted to act unilaterally, in part because it wasn’t clear Congress would assent. He finally found a government lawyer willing to tell him that the War Powers Act didn’t apply, the State Department’s Harold Koh. Koh, the former dean of Yale Law School, ironically made his early academic reputation arguing that the President lacks unilateral authority across a wide range of military and foreign policy arenas, and must instead collaborate with Congress.
Koh made what strikes me as the risible argument that bombing Libya did not constitute “hostilities” within the meaning of the War Powers Act. Compare and contrast what Obama said just the other day about Libya: “And there was the possibility that we would have made the situation worse rather than better on the ground, precisely because of U.S. involvement, which would have meant that we would have had the third, or, if you count Libya, the fourth war in a Muslim country in the span of a decade.”
So the president thinks that Libya may count as a “war.” Surely, if it’s close enough to a war to potentially count it as such, it also counts as “hostilities.”
Of course, the president was speaking off the cuff, and not engaging in legal analysis. Nevertheless, he’s just confirming what just about everyone but Harold Koh thinks is obvious: a large-scale bombing campaign with the intent of bringing down a sitting government is at least arguably a “war,” and certainly constitutes “hostilities” within any normal meaning of the term. But let’s remember that the ultimate blame for illegally failing to comply with the War Powers Act lies not with Koh for providing the president with a legal fig leaf for ignoring the law, but with Obama for seeking and accepting it.
*Obama could not have been more explicit: “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.”