BRASILIA, Brazil — Saying the world cannot “stand idly by” as Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi brutalizes civilians, President Obama on Saturday said he had no choice but to authorize military strikes to help enforce a U.N.-authorized no-fly zone.
U.S. and British forces have hurled at least 110 cruise missiles at more than 20 targets in an effort to take out Col. Gadhafi’s air defenses, according to the Pentagon. The attacks were launched amid reports that the longtime strongman had violated his own declared ceasefire by attacking rebels in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Mr. Obama said the use of force is “not our first choice,” but that a U.N. Security Council resolution against attacks on civilians must be enforced.
“We must be clear: actions have consequences and the writ of the international community must be enforced,” Mr. Obama told reporters in Brasilia, where began a five-day visit of Latin America. “We are answering the calls of a threatened people.”
Dubbed “Odyssey Dawn,” the effort is being led by Gen. Carter F. Ham of the U.S. Africa Command but operational control will eventually be transitioned to a coalition commander, a senior U.S. defense official said. The U.S. is working with a group of four other allies — France, Britain, Italy and Canada — and expects other Arab nations to join the action.
“They’ve got two goals: First is to prevent further attacks by regime forces on Libyan citizens and opposition groups, especially in around Benghazi,” the defense official said. “And second, we want to degrade the regime’s ability to resist a no-fly zone.”
As of Saturday evening, officials said no U.S. aircraft had been deployed over Libya.
Mr. Obama pointedly stressed that no U.S. ground troops would be deployed, describing the mission as “limited.” He said he signed off on the attacks after consulting with his national security team and Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
But some lawmakers had called for more than consultation, arguing that Mr. Obama should obtain their approval before taking military action.
“As [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates and others have noted, military action is tantamount to an act of war, which would require substantial resources over a long period of time,” Rep. John Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said. “Given our current fiscal constraints, and our military’s current responsibilities, this truly deserves a robust debate before we commit our young men and women in uniform.”
Noted antiwar activist Rep. Dennis Kucinich said it would be unconstitutional for Mr. Obama to commit the U.S. to participate in enforcing a no-fly zone in the absence of congressional consent.
“Congress should be called back into session immediately to decide whether or not to authorize the United States’ participation in a military strike. If it does not, the action of the president is contrary to U.S. Constitution,” the Ohio Democrat said. “Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution clearly states that the United States Congress has the power to declare war. The President does not. That was the Founders’ intent.”
As a candidate for the White House in 2007, Mr. Obama told the Boston Globe that 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.” The commander in chief could only act on his own in instances of self-defense, he said.
Mr. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, added that it is “always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.”
Asked whether there’s a conflict between Mr. Obama’s words and his authorization of strikes against Libyan air defense targets, an administration spokesman noted that the deployment is “limited in duration and scope, and conducted in partnership with an international coalition.”
“It is aimed at preventing an imminent humanitarian catastrophe that directly implicates the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. “We have been closely consulting Congress regarding the situation in Libya, including in a session the president conducted before his announcement yesterday with the bipartisan leadership. The president is committed to maintaining the full support of Congress in the course of ongoing and close consultation.”