After Libya: The Need to Revise the War Powers Resolution

Before U.S. President Barack Obama committed American forces to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mission in Libya last spring, he neglected to provide an adequate reason for America's involvement or seek approval from Congress. Because of this decision, Obama faced extensive criticism as the conflict dragged on. In a letter sent to the president in March 2011, House Speaker John Boehner wrote that he was "troubled" that Obama committed U.S. military forces to the conflict "without clearly defining" what the mission is and without first consulting Congress. Additionally, on June 3, 2011, the House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution demanding that President Obama define U.S. goals in Libya. Obama's failure to consult with Congress creates a dangerous precedent that denies Congress a say in deciding when and how U.S. military forces should be used and instead places these decisions into the hands of just one person - he president. To ensure that this practice does not continue, Congress should learn from Obama's actions in Libya and make the War Powers Resolution binding and more specific.

The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to declare wars and fund the military. However, the Constitution simultaneously empowers the president to carry out wars as commander-in-chief. Both branches of government have long debated this dichotomy of war powers. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 meant to end this debate by requiring closer collaboration between the branches when the United States enters into a conflict. The War Powers Resolution states that the president may not engage the U.S. military in any conflict for more than 60 days unless Congress has declared war extended the sixty-day period, or cannot convene due to an armed attack on U.S. territory. Passed over a presidential veto, the War Powers Resolution means to serve as a check on the president's ability to commit U.S. forces to lengthy military engagements without approval from Congress.

Since the start of U.S. involvement in NATO's Libya mission, President Obama has neglected the War Powers Resolution by denying that the conflict is actually a war. In a 38-page report sent to lawmakers on June 15, 2011, the Obama administration asserted that since "U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops," the Libyan conflict does not constitute a war or fall under the War Powers Resolution.

Despite Obama's argument to the contrary, the Libya mission is exactly the type of conflict that the War Powers Resolution was meant to control. Through air support and strategic bombings, NATO's mission was clearly of a military nature and directly assisted the Libyan rebels' takeover of the capital city of Tripoli on August 23, 2011. Considering that America provided the bulk of NATO's military capabilities and funding in Libya, this was as much America's war as it was NATO's. Therefore, Obama should have consulted with and sought approval from Congress and adhered to the 60-day deadline, as the Resolution requires.

To prevent future presidents from ignoring Congress' role in military conflicts, the War Powers Resolution should be revised to make it more specific and binding. Such revisions should include accurately defining terms used in the original resolution such as "engaging in hostilities" that are ambiguous and can be easily circumvented by the executive branch. These revisions should also include penalties which are automatically enacted should the president fail to uphold the resolution's requirements. Such penalties would most likely include the automatic withholding of funds reserved for the conflict without a congressional debate or vote. The outcome would be a new War Powers Resolution, which still allows the president to dispatch American armed forces when necessary, but ensures effective oversight by elected officials in Congress.

[Source: By Chris Economou, International Affairs Review, 17Oct11]

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