Obama’s negation of ‘hostilities’ in Libya draws criticism

The White House has officially declared that what’s happening in Libya is not “hostilities.”

But at the Pentagon, officials have decided it’s unsafe enough there to give troops extra pay for serving in “imminent danger.”

The Defense Department decided in April to pay an extra $225 a month in “imminent danger pay” to service members who fly planes over Libya or serve on ships within 110 nautical miles of its shores.

That means the Pentagon has decided that troops in those places are “subject to the threat of physical harm or imminent danger because of civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism or wartime conditions.” There are no U.S. ground troops in Libya.

President Obama declared last week that the three-month-old Libyan campaign should not be considered “hostilities.” That word is important, because it’s used in the 1973 War Powers Resolution: Presidents must obtain congressional authorization within a certain period after sending U.S. forces “into hostilities.”

Obama’s reasoning was that he did not need that authorization because U.S. forces were playing a largely supportive and logistical role, and because Libyan defenses are so battered they pose little danger. U.S. drones are still carrying out some strikes against Libyan targets.

Overall, the White House reasoned, “U.S. military operations [in Libya] are distinct from the kind of ‘hostilities’ contemplated by the resolution.”

On Monday, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the Pentagon’s decision was further proof that Obama’s logic is flawed.

“If members of our armed forces involved in the military action in Libya are getting ‘imminent danger’ pay, it’s one more indication that the White House claim that we aren’t involved in ‘hostilities’ just doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

Asked Monday whether the White House finding contradicted the Pentagon’s, an Obama spokesman declined to comment.

The Pentagon has applied the “imminent danger” label to more than three dozen countries. Some are indeed war zones: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia.

But others are generally peaceful. Last year, the list included Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Turkey and areas of Greece within 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) of Athens.

This week on Capitol Hill, legislators are expected to consider one — or several — resolutions designed to rebuke Obama over Libya.

Many in Congress have said they were outraged by Obama’s argument last week.

“Hostilities by remote control are still hostilities,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), normally a close Obama ally, on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” “We are killing with drones what we would otherwise be killing with fighter planes. And we are engaged in hostilities in Libya.”

Legislators have proposed resolutions that would express disapproval of the operation or cut off its funding — or authorize it outright. Congressional leaders have not said when any of those options will be voted on.

The administration’s logic has been criticized by some academic experts. They said it amounted to an argument that a battle, if won handily enough, does not amount to a battle.

“If I just sort of sucker-punched someone, and they doubled over on the floor, I think we would say that I was involved in a hostile action, whether or not they were able to land a punch or a blow in response,” said Saikrishna Prakash, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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