We've Attacked Libya With $368 Million Worth of Bombs

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The Pentagon is asking Congress if it can move money around in its budget to replace the spent ordnance

libya rubble full.jpg

Before the Senate cancelled its vote on the war in Libya, having decided that it's more important to focus on budget negotiations, Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana gave a 25-minute speech excoriating the Obama Administration. "Defining these actions as something less than hostilities requires extraordinary legal contortion," he said. "The fact that we are leaving most of the shooting to other nations does not mean that the United States is not involved in acts of war."

There's ample evidence to support his position. To cite just one piece, American war planes have flown attack missions over Libya 801 times over the last 3 months, actually dropping ordnance on 132 separate occasions. That raises a question. Where's all that military hardware coming from? How is it being paid for given that Congress hasn't approved any funds for this conflict? On Wednesday, a little noticed story in Defense News offered some answers.

"The Pentagon is asking Congress if it can move more than $5 billion in previously allocated funding, including hundreds of millions of dollars to replace bombs dropped during operations in Libya -- despite military leaders previously saying replacements would not be needed," Kate Brannen reports. "This year, the Pentagon needs to replace equipment used in Operation Odyssey Dawn, what the Defense Department called operations in Libya before they were transferred to NATO. The cost includes $310 million to buy Tomahawk missiles, $38 million for Joint Direct Attack Munitions, $15 million for general-purpose bombs and $5 million for Hellfire missiles fired from Predator UAVs. The Pentagon also says it needs hundreds of thousands of dollars for cartridges, fuzes and flares."

This information doesn't change anything about the legal status of the war: as noted, we already possessed ample evidence that our military is engaged in hostilities. But rhetorically, it is now possible to demonstrate that reality -- and the absurdity of Obama's Orwellian denial of it -- in exciting new ways.

Here's a little something in dialog format:

Q. How many millions of dollars of military grade explosives must be fired at a country before President Obama thinks we're at war with it?

A. Must be in the billions of dollars. In Libya, hundreds of millions in bombs and missiles don't even count as hostilities!

And here's something aimed at folks who supported the Libya war for humanitarian reasons: for the price of the Tomahawk missiles we've fired there alone, we could've purchased roughly 52 million mosquito nets, the most cost effective means of preventing deaths from malaria, which kills 1 million people every year.

After Bill Clinton violated the War Powers Resolution in Kosovo -- he and Hillary Clinton have surely done more than any other couple in history to undermine it -- he claimed that Congress implicitly approved of his actions by funding them. Should the Pentagon be granted its routine request to move money around in its budget to replace the military hardware it has used in North African, one wonders if the Obama Administration will have the audacity to claim that in doing so, it has provided legal cover to his actions. I hope not. He'd be wrong on the merits, of course.

But lawbreaking presidents are without shame in their legal contortions. 

So far, Congress isn't stopping this one. Or lending him the approval the Constitution requires. Instead, they're arguing about the debt ceiling and the budget. Or as Lugar put it in that same speech, "We find ourselves in a situation where Congress is debating vast cuts in domestic programs to make essential progress on the deficit, even as President Obama has initiated an expensive, open-ended military commitment in a country that his Defense secretary said is not a vital interest."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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