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Justice Department Memo: The authority of the president to use force in Libya

The Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department has just released a memo written by Caroline Krass, Principle Deputy Assistant Attorney General, on the authority of the president to use force in Libya. OLC’s bottom line:

We conclude, therefore, that the use of military force in Libya was supported by sufficiently important national interests to fall within the President’s constitutional power. At the same time, turning to the second element of the analysis, we do not believe that anticipated United States operations in Libya amounted to a “war” in the constitutional sense necessitating congressional approval under the Declaration of War Clause. This inquiry, as noted, is highly fact-specific and turns on no single factor. See Proposed Bosnia Deployment, 19 Op. O.L.C. at 334 (reaching conclusion based on specific “circumstances”); Haiti Deployment, 18 Op. O.L.C. at 178 (same). Here, considering all the relevant circumstances, we believe applicable historical precedents demonstrate that the limited military operations the President anticipated directing were not a “war” for constitutional purposes.

As in the case of the no-fly zone patrols and periodic airstrikes in Bosnia before the deployment of ground troops in 1995 and the NATO bombing campaign in connection with the Kosovo conflict in 1999—two military campaigns initiated without a prior declaration of war or other specific congressional authorization—President Obama determined that the use of force in Libya by the United States would be limited to airstrikes and associated support missions; the President made clear that “[t]he United States is not going to deploy ground troops in Libya.” Obama March 18, 2011 Remarks. The planned operations thus avoided the difficulties of withdrawal and risks of escalation that may attend commitment of ground forces—two factors that this Office has identified as “arguably” indicating “a greater need for approval [from Congress] at the outset,” to avoid creating a situation in which “Congress may be confronted with circumstances in which the exercise of its power to declare war is effectively foreclosed.” Proposed Bosnia Deployment, 19 Op. O.L.C. at 333. Furthermore, also as in prior operations conducted without a declaration of war or other specific authorizing legislation, the anticipated operations here served a “limited mission” and did not “aim at the conquest or occupation of territory.” Id. at 332. President Obama directed United States forces to “conduct[] a limited and well-defined mission in support of international efforts to protect civilians and prevent a humanitarian disaster”; American airstrikes accordingly were to be “limited in their nature, duration, and scope.” Obama March 21, 2011 Report to Congress. As the President explained, “we are not going to use force to go beyond [this] well-defined goal.” Obama March 18, 2011 Remarks. And although it might not be true here that “the risk of sustained military conflict was negligible,” the anticipated operations also did not involve a “preparatory bombardment” in anticipation of a ground invasion—a form of military operation we distinguished from the deployment (without preparatory bombing) of 20,000 U.S. troops to Haiti in concluding that the latter operation did not require advance congressional approval. Haiti Deployment, 18 Op. O.L.C. at 176, 179. Considering the historical practice of even intensive military action—such as the 17-day-long 1995 campaign of NATO airstrikes in Bosnia and some two months of bombing in Yugoslavia in 1999—without specific prior congressional approval, as well as the limited means, objectives, and intended duration of the anticipated operations in Libya, we do not think the “anticipated nature, scope, and duration” of the use of force by the United States in Libya rose to the level of a “war” in the constitutional sense, requiring the President to seek a declaration of war or other prior authorization from Congress.

As noted in a previous post, I would agree that the president has the authority to authorize actions of this limited nature, scope, and duration without Congressional approval.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.