Let’s be honest: President Barack Obama’s claim that U.S. military action in Libya doesn’t constitute “hostilities” is nonsense, and Congress is right to call him on it.

Blasting dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s troops and installations from above with unmanned drone aircraft may or may not be the right thing to do, but it’s clearly a hostile act. Likewise, providing intelligence, surveillance and logistical support that enable allied planes to attack Gadhafi’s military — and, increasingly, to target Gadhafi himself — can only be considered hostile. These are acts of war.

Yet Obama, with uncommon disregard for both language and logic, takes the position that what we are doing in Libya does not reach the “hostilities” threshold for triggering the War Powers Act, under which presidents must seek congressional approval for any military campaign lasting more than 90 days. House Speaker John Boehner said Obama’s claim doesn’t meet the “straight-face test,” and he’s right.

To be sure, Boehner is also playing politics. In the past, he has argued that the War Powers Act is “constitutionally suspect” because it seeks to tie the hands of the commander in chief. I don’t believe it’s accidental that Boehner’s newfound respect for the much-disputed law coincides with the Republican Party’s electoral stance, which is that every single thing Obama has ever done is wrong.

But the law remains in force and, while presidents of both parties routinely find ways around it, they usually find a more credible dodge than asking, “War? What war?”

When he authorized the Libya campaign, Obama said U.S. involvement would last “days, not weeks.” He got the “not weeks” part right, at least: The military effort to oust Gadhafi is entering its fourth month, with no end in sight.

It’s no surprise that progressives in Congress, such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, would cite the War Powers Act to challenge a sitting president who made the unilateral decision to wage war. What’s new is the significant anti-war sentiment we’ve heard from Republicans, especially those identified with the tea party movement.

For decades, the GOP has favored a robust, interventionist foreign policy that relies heavily on a willingness to use military power. This may be changing, as contrarian Republican voices — call them neo-isolationists, constitutionalists or even peaceniks — demand to be heard.

Despite taking the ridiculous position that bombing is not a hostile act, Obama is likely to win this tug of war with Capitol Hill. Boehner has been cool to the idea of deploying Congress’ only real weapon, the power of the purse; any attempt to block funding of the Libya operation could be portrayed as abandonment of “the troops.” And whatever happens in the House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has indicated that he backs Obama’s view. We’ll probably hear a lot of sound and fury but see little impact.

But I hope I’m wrong. The nation’s interests would be much better served if we had an open debate about the Libya campaign — and, by extension, the proper use of U.S. military power in a fast-changing world.

Do we use military force to protect civilians who are in imminent danger of being massacred by forces loyal to a despotic regime? That was the rationale for intervening in Libya. But what about Syria, where a massacre of freedom-seeking civilians has been under way for weeks? What about Yemen, where civilians have been dying in the streets?

And what about the civilians who are being killed accidentally, such as the nine who reportedly died Sunday when an errant NATO missile strayed into a residential neighborhood of Tripoli? Is there a point at which the death and destruction of a drawn-out civil war surpass anything Gadhafi’s forces might have done had they rolled unopposed into rebel-held Benghazi?

Most important, what are we doing there? Are we in Libya for altruistic or selfish reasons? Principles or oil? Assuming Gadhafi is eventually deposed or killed, then what? Do we just sail away? Or will we be stuck with yet another ruinously expensive exercise in nation-building?

And there’s a moral question to consider. The advent of robotic drone aircraft makes it easier to wage war without suffering casualties. But without risk, can military action even be called war? Or is it really just slaughter?

An intellectual president such as Obama should be able to lead a search for answers to these tough questions. As soon as he gets a better grasp on the definition of “hostilities.”

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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