Facing the press for the first time since a bipartisan congressional rebuke, President Obama on Wednesday defended his handling of the conflict in Libya, dismissing as “noise” legal and constitutional questions about whether he should have sought congressional approval to extend the U.S. military mission enforcing a no-fly zone over the North African nation.
Arguing that American support for the NATO mission is protecting civilians from forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, Mr. Obama chided critics for focusing on procedural issues and said the welfare of the Libyan people is his paramount concern.
“We have engaged in a limited operation to help a lot of people against one of the worst tyrants in the world, somebody who nobody should want to defend,” Mr. Obama told reporters in a wide-ranging news conference in the White House’s East Room. “And this suddenly becomes the cause celebre for some folks in Congress? Come on.”
“A lot of this fuss is politics,” he said.
Mr. Obama said anti-Gadhafi forces are benefiting from momentum more than three months after the bombing campaign started, even as the autocratic leader clings to power. Rebels said this week that they had advanced to within 50 miles of Col. Gadhafi’s stronghold of Tripoli with the help of arms that were airdropped by the French military.
Congressional critics contend that Mr. Obama has gone far beyond what he promised because American warplanes and unmanned drones are still striking at Libyan targets. They also say he has ignored deadlines set by the 1973 War Powers Resolution to seek congressional authorization as the campaign grinds on.
Lawmakers in both parties have bristled at the administration’s claim that Mr. Obama is in compliance with the law because American troops are not in tremendous danger and the U.S. effort is small when compared with other NATO countries.
“I think you’ve undermined the credibility of this administration. I think you’ve undermined the integrity of the War Powers Act. And I think by taking this very narrow approach, you’ve done a great disservice to our country,” Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, told Harold Koh, the State Department’s top legal adviser, at a contentious hearing Tuesday.
The president insisted at his news conference that he has kept every promise about the operation and noted that the U.S. handed over control of the mission to NATO allies as he said it would and pointing out that America’s European allies in NATO are now bearing most of the burden.
“We have done exactly what I said we would do,” he said. “We have not put any boots on the ground. And our allies, who historically we’ve complained aren’t willing to carry enough of the load when it comes to NATO operations, have carried a big load.”
After securing a U.N. resolution, Mr. Obama deployed U.S. forces in March to first lead, then later to support a NATO operation. He alerted Congress of the conflict under the provisions of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, but never sought authorization. He has since said that with U.S. troops no longer in the lead, the resolution is not relevant and its withdrawal deadlines don’t apply.
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama was asked whether he was prepared for the conflict to go on for another year, but the president didn’t reply directly. Instead, he said he promised Americans that the U.S. lead role would last a matter of weeks — a promise he said he kept.
Now the focus shifts back to Congress.
On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution authorizing U.S. involvement in Libya for up to a year. The bipartisan 14-5 committee vote suggested strong support for Mr. Obama’s war plans, including limited airstrikes by U.S. forces.
But the committee acted after the House of Representatives last week delivered a symbolic rebuke by voting 295-123 against a measure formally giving Mr. Obama authority for the Libya mission, and momentum appeared to be building for a proposal to cut off all funding for the operation.
The president argued that lawmakers concerned about the legality of the mission were missing the point — the Gadhafi regime was going to “massacre his people” if the U.S. and its allies failed to act — but nevertheless said he thinks the operation is legal.
“Do I think that our actions in any way violate the War Powers Resolution? The answer is no,” he said.
Asked whether the mission can be judged a success so long as Col. Gadhafi remains in power, Mr. Obama reiterated that the Libyan leader “needs to go,” but he didn’t speculate how or when that might happen. The U.N. resolution authorizing a no-fly zone did not call for his removal.
“I think it’d be hard for us to feel confident that the Libyan people are going to be protected unless he steps down,” Mr. Obama said. “Now, what that means, whether there’s the possibility of Libyans arriving at some sort of political settlement — you know that, I think, is something that ultimately the Libyan people are going to have to make a decision about.”