May 23, 2011

Lugar Warns Obama on Limits and Costs of Libya Engagement

Refusal to Consult on Libyan War Puts American Military in Jeopardy and Undercuts Congressional Authority

Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today released the following letter to President Obama regarding American involvement in the civil war in Libya:

                                                                        May 23, 2011

The Honorable Barack Obama

President of the United States

The White House

Washington, DC

Dear Mr. President:

            I am writing to express my serious concern about your Administration’s failure to recognize the role of the Congress in matters relating to U.S. involvement in Libya’s civil war.  Though officials from your Administration have committed that your Administration would consult with Congress on policy in Libya, and conduct military operations in a manner consistent with the War Powers Resolution, these commitments have not been fulfilled. 

            Almost two weeks prior to the initiation of U.S. military operations in Libya, I expressed concerns about the costs and risks associated with such operations and their potential adverse effect on other important U.S. interests, and my view that Congressional authorization was needed for any such operations.  Others expressed similar views during this period.  In response to these concerns, Under Secretary of State William Burns assured the Foreign Relations Committee in testimony on March 17 that “the President and Secretary Clinton take very seriously the importance of continued close consultation with the congressional leadership on these very important issues and I know the White House will remain in touch with the congressional leadership on this in the days ahead.”

            In spite of this assurance, to my knowledge, no meaningful consultation with Congress took place prior to your decision on March 19 to initiate military operations in Libya.  Though I and some other members of Congress were invited to the White House the next day on short notice, the purpose of that meeting appeared to be to inform us of a decision that had already been made to carry out military intervention in Libya.  More importantly, your Administration did not seek Congressional authorization for the military actions you directed in Libya, either before or after March 19.

            In the period following the commencement of our military intervention in Libya, your Administration committed to consult closely with Congress on our policy in Libya and to conduct military operations there in a manner consistent with the War Powers Resolution.  On May 12, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg made the following statement in testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee:

“As we come closer to the end of the second month of operations, we are actively reviewing our role going forward.  Throughout, the President has been mindful of the provisions of the War Powers Resolution and has acted in a manner consistent with it.  He will continue to do so, and we look forward to continuing to consult with Congress on our role in the coming days.”

            These commitments have also gone unfulfilled.  On May 20, you wrote to Congress indicating that U.S. military operations in Libya – which since April 4 have included suppression and destruction of air defenses and precision strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles – will continue beyond the 60 day deadline specified in the War Powers Resolution, even though Congress has not authorized these operations.  While your letter expressed support for Congressional passage of a non-binding resolution expressing support for these operations, you have not sought affirmative Congressional authorization for these actions as specified by the War Powers Resolution.  Nor has your Administration explained why it appears to have abandoned its public commitment – made eight days earlier in formal Congressional testimony by a senior Administration official – to act consistently with the War Powers Resolution.

In this same period, your Administration’s actions have undercut Congressional efforts to understand and conduct appropriate oversight of U.S. involvement in Libya’s civil war.  Last week, your Administration cancelled without explanation a scheduled Foreign Relations Committee briefing on Libya by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright, which would have provided members an opportunity to better understand our current operations in Libya.  This decision was particularly unfortunate given that your Administration declined the Committee’s request that a Defense Department official testify at its May 12 hearing on Libya.  The one administration witness who did appear at that hearing – Deputy Secretary Steinberg – declined to answer questions about our military operations in Libya on the ground that such questions would be more appropriately answered by the Defense Department.  These actions make it difficult to see as credible your Administration’s professed commitment to consult closely with Congress on these matters.

            These developments are particularly concerning because U.S. military operations in Libya have assumed a different character than you suggested when you announced the decision to initiate them.  In your March 21 letter to the Congress, you indicated that these operations would be limited in their nature, duration, and scope, and focused on protecting civilians and civilian populated areas from attack.  Two months into these operations, your Administration is unable to specify what limits will apply to the duration of the operations, and the coalition in which we are participating appears to have expanded its objectives to weakening the Gaddafi regime’s hold on power through strikes on leadership targets and, potentially, infrastructure targets.

            There are serious costs to your Administration’s failure to appropriately engage Congress on these important matters.  It has left the American people without a clear understanding of the U.S. interests at stake in Libya and how they relate to the other important challenges we currently face as a country.  Nor do the American people understand what costs they will be asked to bear in connection with our Libya operations, and what other priorities will have to be sacrificed to support these operations. 

There is increased risk of an abrupt reversal in popular support for U.S. military operations not authorized by Congress, as occurred in regard to Somalia in the early 1990s, particularly if such operations prove more costly or difficult than originally envisioned.  This ill serves the interests of the military members charged with carrying out such operations and the allies who fight by their sides.  Moreover, engaging in significant and extended military operations without Congressional authorization risks setting a precedent that future Presidents may feel justified in following and potentially expanding upon, further eroding the prudent democratic checks our Constitution sought to place on the employment of our ever more powerful military forces.

Decisions to take the nation to war are perhaps the most significant decisions our government makes.  Because of the costs involved in military operations, the risks and sacrifices they require of our men and women in uniform, and the far reaching impact they may have on our security and our relations with other nations, such decisions require the clear support of the American people.  For this reason, our Constitution provides that powers related to the use of military force are shared between the President and Congress.

I urge you to take the necessary steps to ensure that your Administration fulfills its commitment, and its Constitutional duties, to respect the role of Congress with regard to our policy in Libya, including timely consultation on, and seeking authorization for, any continuation of U.S. military operations.


                                                            Richard G. Lugar

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