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The Senate and the No-Fly Zone: The Legend Begins

Out of extremely thin air, the Obama administration is now conjuring the narrative that Congress actually did approve a Libyan no-fly zone before President Barack Obama signed onto the project with the United Nations. Speaking last Sunday on ABC's This Week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned (though she wasn't quite sure of the date): "The United States Senate called for a no-fly zone in the resolution that it passed, um, I think on March the first."

ABC News, under the headline "Fact Check: Senate Did Favor No-Fly Zone," is now reporting:

Some lawmakers are grousing loudly that President Barack Obama sent the nation's military to Libya without Congress' blessing. They're ignoring a key fact: The Senate a month ago voted to support imposing a no-fly zone to protect civilians from attacks by Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

With no objections, the Senate on March 1 backed a resolution strongly condemning "the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya" and urging the U.N. Security Council to take action, "including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory."

ABC goes on to quote Defense Secretary Robert Gates's testimony yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which Gates said: "In its own way, the Congress consulted with the president and particularly with this body that unanimously in a resolution called for the imposition of a no-fly zone."

Lower in the article, ABC then touches on the many and large qualifiers. For an articulate account of what those are, you'll do better to skip the ABC backing and filling, and go straight to Andy McCarthy's post on NRO's Corner: "How the most transparent administration in history gets a transparent congressional debate on the war in Libya." As Andy notes, this resolution -- Senate Resolution 85 -- was nonbinding. It has no force of law. Nor is the Senate the same as the full Congress. And, as Andy notes in another post, this nonbinding resolution was "hotlined" through the Senate with no debate and no vote, receiving "the same amount of consideration as a bill to rename a post office." It neither authorizes nor endorses American use of force.

Among my own sources, a congressional aide says the resolution was passed late in the day, with few members around, and the no-fly zone slipped quietly into the final version.

To this I'll add my own observation. When this resolution passed, on March 1, the Obama administration to all appearances couldn't have cared less. Obama did not at that point issue a clarion public call for a no-fly zone, or rush to the Security Council brandishing Resolution 85 and demanding action. Nor did the administration turn to Congress for anything of genuine heft. For almost two more weeks -- during which Muammar Gaddafi's forces were regaining the advantage and slaughtering Libyans -- President Obama waited and dithered. On March 11, he held a press conference in which he talked about organizing "conversations" with NATO and consulting with the "international community" on Libya. He made not a single reference to the March 1 Senate resolution. He made precisely three mentions of the Senate. None of these had anything to do with Libya; they were strictly about the U.S. budget.

It wasn't until the Arab League passed its own resolution, on March 12, calling for a no-fly zone over Libya, that the Obama administration swung into action. It took another five days before the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, authorizing a no-fly zone. When that happened, Obama's ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, did not credit the Senate's nonbinding hotlined no-debate no-vote resolution passed 16 days earlier. She said the UN measure had been passed "in response to a strong request by the League of Arab States." She credited support from Lebanon and African members of the Security Council. She made zero mention of the U.S. Senate. Likewise, Obama in his remarks delivered during the week after the UN resolution, as he made his way from Washington to Brazil to Chile to El Salvador, talked about the calls and partnership and support and you-name-it of America's allies and Arab "partners." Not only did Obama leave the Senate and its nonbinding resolution unsung. He didn't even stick around Washington to explain himself. For the first few days of American use of force in Libya, Congress was left trying to glean specifics of America's new war from presidential press encounters in Rio, Santiago and San Salvador.

Not until Obama returned from his Latin American tour  to face a highly disgruntled Congress did Senate Resolution 85 start to acquire the stature with which Clinton and Gates over the past six days have tried to retroactively endow it. If this is how foreign policy now works, and the constitutional role of Congress in declaring war now boils down to slipping a note about the UN into a nonbinding no-debate no-vote resolution passed in a sparsely populated Senate chamber, then watch out. God only knows what adventures America's president might next embark upon.