The Libyan War Powers Debate Hinges on the Word 'War'

The Libya debate raises questions about drone warfare in Yemen

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On Wednesday, President Obama--facing criticism and even a lawsuit from Congress over his handling of the air war in Libya, provided lawmakers with a legal explanation for why he doesn't need their approval to continue the campaign. Obama argued that the War Power Resolution, which prohibits the president from deploying troops for more than 90 days without Congressional authorization, doesn't apply when we're not really at war: U.S. operations in Libya, the administration told Congress, "do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a seriously threat thereof."

That's not to say we're not involved in Libya. As The New York Times points out, the U.S. is expected to spend over $1 billion on the mission by September, and it's operating remotely piloted drones in the country and providing refueling and surveillance to NATO warplanes. Which makes people wonder: In the age of high-tech warfare, is Obama "limited" engagement in Libya emblematic of what future wars will be like? As Jack Goldsmith, a Justice Department official in the Bush administration, told the Times, "The administration's theory implies that the president can wage war with drones and all manner of offshore missiles without having to bother with the War Powers Resolution's time limits," adding in a blog post that "the implications here, in a world of increasingly remote weapons, are large." John Cole at Balloon Juice reflects, "Apparently, you are only at war when you have troops at high risk--launching drones into other nations isn't war, it's just aggressive foreign policy!"

Beyond Libya, where should we look for signs of this new form of warfare? Many analysts are pointing to Yemen. The U.S. is currently escalating its drone strikes against Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is responsible for the unsuccessful attempt to bomb an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009, among other plots against the U.S. Reflecting on the news this week that the C.I.A. is building a secret air base in the Middle East to serve as a launching pad for the campaign, The New York Times predicted that the Obama administration is planning an "extended war in Yemen" and looking to "armed drones as the weapon of choice to hunt and kill militants in countries where a large American military presence is untenable." The Wall Street Journal also reported this week that the C.I.A.'s new "targeted killing program" in Yemen would identify targets based on their "pattern of life," as is done in Pakistan. Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen, who warns that the C.I.A.'s targeted killings could target the wrong people and backfire, wonders today how Obama would characterize the Yemen campaign: "periodic raids, kinetic action, certainly not war?"

Of course, Yemen isn't the only place where the U.S. has deployed drones. In fact, according to Wired's Spencer Ackerman, the U.S. has used drones for counterterrorism purposes in at least five countries--Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya--and incoming Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently told a Senate panel that he was concerned about al-Qaeda in Somalia and North Africa. "Will they be the next theaters of robot war?" Ackerman wonders.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.