Did President Obama Violate the War Powers Act?

By YeOldeScribe ~ May 28th, 2011 @ 12:31 am

Separation of powers is the one thing that any 9th grade civics student should be able to tell you they learned from their American government and politics course. It’s one of the most important tenants of democracy, right up there with the will of the people. After all, if the government grows too powerful, than it no longer needs the will of the people to sustain it, and the government no longer needs the people – thus ending the democratic process. Separation of power became even more important in the early to mid ’70’s, when one man thought he could get above the democratic precess (and the law in general), and didn’t have to listen to the will of the people anymore.

And thus, the War Powers Act was born. Originally created as a response to the seemingly never-ending Vietnam War, it always rears its head when presidents try to tell the military what to do. President Obama is finding this out firsthand. Today we’re taking a look at Obama’s actions in Libya and if they violate the War Powers Resolution. To do that, we’ll need to take a closer look at what the War Powers Act really says and how it came about, examine exactly what actions President Obama has taken and finally, we’ll give our opinion on if the Act has been violated or not.

As we’ve previously alluded to, the War Powers Act (WPA) – officially known as the War Powers Resolution of 1973 – was passed post-Vietnam after concerns were raised by pretty much everyone over the growing power of the executive branch, especially relating to how it handles the military. See, it’s true that the President is the Commander in Chief of the military. But that little thing called the Constitution also clearly states that Congress is the only entity that can declare war. It’s interesting to note that “war” has officially been declared only twice in United States history (unless you count the American Revolution before we were actually the “United” States – then it’s three). And yet, our history books are filled with other wars – the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, etc. – all of which were apparently just “police actions” and weren’t really wars. The fact that the people of this nation allowed those farces to go unchecked for so long is a crying shame and spits in the face of the men and women who died serving our nation in those police actions wars. Dress it up however you want to, but presidents have always been allowed to declare war – they just have to call it something else. But if w remember our Shakespeare correctly, a rose by any other name…

The short version of what the WPA actually says is that the president has 48 hours (2 days) to notify Congress that s/he has committed our armed forces to military action. From that point on, Congress has 60 days to either declare war or authorize said use of the military. If they do not, the troops have to be withdrawn within 30 days. Simple as that. Interestingly enough, the WPA was one of the few pieces of groundbreaking legislation that overrode a Presidential veto. Most of the time, Presidents don’t have to even issue a veto – the mere threat of one is enough for the sides to go back to the drawing board and take a different approach. But Congress used its rarely-exercised veto override power and passed the resolution into law without the support of the most powerful man on Earth.

Given that, let’s take a look at what President Obama did in regards to sending troops to Libya. On March 19th, Obama ordered US troops – as part of a NATO led coalition – to attack Gaddafi-led forces that were killing innocent civilians and slaughtering rebel forces trying to protect them. On March 21st, Obama informed Congress of this fact. That means that the 60th day of this conflict was May 20th, 2011. Obama has yet to receive any word from Congress relating to the US troops still stationed in Libya.

Obama has argued that he acted in accordance with the WPA. He says that he informed Congress of his plans to send US troops to Libya, and since they have yet to tell him he needs to remove the troops, everything is golden. Also, Obama argues that because he passed off command authority to NATO that he doesn’t need to get Congresses’ approval anymore.

We’re going to call BS on this for three main reasons.

First, Obama talked at length about how he had the authority to send US troops to Libya from the WPS. According to ABC News:

From the beginning of the U.S. military intervention in Libya, the Obama administration has cited the 1973 War Powers Act as the legal basis of its ability to conduct military activities for 60 days without first seeking a declaration of war from Congress. The military intervention started on March 19; Congress was notified on March 21. Those 60 days expire [May 20th].

And from the Washington Post:

On April 1, a Justice Department memorandum devoted many words to refuting what no one is disputing, that presidents have the power to initiate military action without Congress’s permission.

You can’t have it both ways, Barack. Either the WPA gives you the authority to send our boys off to war and you’re bound by the rest of the rules of it or it doesn’t and you never had that authority in the first place because only Congress can declare war. The president is trying to have his cake and eat it too, and it’s not lawful.

Second, passing the authority on to NATO doesn’t mean anything. The US originally led the charge to war and NATO wouldn’t have gone to war without us. Also, what does Obama’s actions say to the troops stationed in Libya now? That they’re not really troops? That they’re not soldiers? That if they get shot and killed they’ll come back to life because we’re not really at war? We think not. These men and women are military forces – always have and will be until they fulfill their contracts and are released from them. To call them anything different is the same thing as pretending that the wars in Vietnam and Korea weren’t really wars. Let’s just be honest here – wars are wars, soldiers are soldiers, and law is law.

Finally, Obama’s rationale for keeping troops in Libya shows a fundamental error in his understanding of what the WPA actually says. Obama is trying to claim that by not taking direct action on his original notification of forces being deployed, they’re tacitly consenting to the action. But that’s not what WPA says. It says that Congress has 60 days to approve the action. If Congress doesn’t approve the action, that means they don’t approve of the action. By not approving the action, they’re not saying that sending troops was okay. The law explicitly states that Congress has to take action for the troops to stay. In short, Congress has to take a positive action – and silence doesn’t mean consent. That doesn’t work in assault/abuse cases and that doesn’t work here. It’s a weak argument that is ethically and legally unacceptable.

In short, we believe Obama is majorly in violation of the law, and has 30 days from May 20th to get our troops out of Libya. It’s too late for Congressional approval now – the WPA clearly states that 60 days is the maximum time allowed for Congress to take action, and they didn’t. Obama is bound by law as much as any other president – and any other citizen for that matter. When he starts to think he’s above it, that leads down a dark road that, even if paved in good intentions,can only end in further abuses of power – which is exactly what this is.

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1 Response to Did President Obama Violate the War Powers Act?

  1. Lynn Wright

    I think the question left unanswered is ‘what does war consist of?’…if it means ‘boots on the ground’, do we know for sure that we put boots on the ground in Libya?…and I don’t mean a clandestine few for RECCE…I think we now have a new definition…a 21st century rules of engagement, if you will….do you realize we sent a B-1 bomber from the mid-west all the way to Libya to hit a target and return?…we now have world-wide, pin-point accuracy capability, manned or unmanned, to wage war…is that a good thing or not?


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