President Obama is facing mounting criticism for failing to secure Congressional approval for the war being waged in Libya. These critics, including many members of Congress, argue that the Constitution gives Congress the power to decide when America goes to war, and the 1973 War Powers Resolution requires Congressional authorization for any military operation lasting longer than 60 days (a time limit that expired on May 20). They note that even President Bush, who was vilified for waging unpopular wars, received Congressional authorization for his use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration has argued that it doesn’t need Congress’ permission to continue the operation. So who is right?
The Constitution contains some ambiguity about war powers; it divides these powers between the president and Congress by declaring the former the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and giving the latter the power to declare war. Many scholars interpret this to mean that Congress has the authority to decide when to launch hostilities and the president is more of a strategic and tactical commander. To clarify these roles, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 over President Nixon’s veto. This law states that the president may only use force under three scenarios: (1) Congress has declared war, (2) Congress has provided explicit statutory authorization for the use of force, or (3) an emergency situation arises in which the president must act quickly to protect U.S. interests. America’s military intervention in Libya has so far met none of these conditions: Congress has not declared war or voted to authorize the mission and even the war’s supporters acknowledge that no imminent threat to U.S. territory, citizens, or other interests prompted intervention–rather, the main goal was to protect civilians, as stated in the UN resolution that authorized the mission.
So Obama’s war is illegal, right? Well, it isn’t quite that simple. Every president since Nixon has argued that the War Powers Act is an unconstitutional power grab by Congress that restricts the president’s legitimate prerogatives as Commander-in-Chief. The Supreme Court has refused to rule on the act’s constitutionality, calling the controversy a political dispute between the executive and legislative branches that they should settle amongst themselves. Presidents have typically finessed this by seeking Congressional authorization for wars and reporting to Congress as required by the War Powers Act while being careful not to admit that they are bound by the law.
So what can Congress do? Congress has the indisputable power to cut off funding for operations it doesn’t approve of, but it has rarely even threatened to do this given the political costs of appearing not to support troops in harm’s way. While some in Congress have suggested it cut off funds for the Libya operation if it remains unauthorized, Republican House Speaker John Boehner has argued that by terminating U.S. involvement we would be turning our backs on NATO. Boehner appears to want clarification on the mission’s scope, justification, and exit strategy–to place some constraints on the operation rather than end it by Congressional fiat. Thus continues a long tradition of Congressional deference to the president in the arena of war powers. (The most recent example before Libya: Democrats promised to end the Iraq War upon taking over Congress in 2006 and they failed to achieve anything substantive despite ample campaign talk about cutting off funding, etc.).
What do you think? Should President Obama abide by the War Powers Resolution even though presidents have disputed its constitutionality? Should Congress consider cutting off funds for the operation if Obama refuses to provide a clear timetable, mission, and exit strategy? Or should Congress stay out and let the president conduct American foreign policy as only the president can? After all, as Senators Lindsey Graham (R) and Jim Webb (D) have both acknowledged, “you can’t have 535 commanders-in-chief.”
The big story of the week has to be the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States on Tuesday. Since then, President Obama has been moving quickly to make sweeping changes to U.S. foreign and domestic policy, including announcements that he was suspending the military tribunal system established to try terrorism suspects, closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay and other secret detention facilities, mandating that all U.S. interrogators comply with the Army Field Manual, and issuing orders to national security team that they should develop a plan outlining a “responsible military drawdown in Iraq.” And that was his first day in office.
Here’s five important stories from the past week you might have missed if you were only focused on the Obama transition.
1. Seeking to improve deteriorating relations with India, Pakistan announced on Friday that it would prosecute militants with links to the November Mumbai terror attacks. The government of Pakistan is hoping to amend its constitution to permit trials for acts of terror committed outside its borders. In the meantime, it has announced its intention to try several militants with links to the Mumbai attacks for cyber crimes. Last week, the Pakistani government arrested 124 alleged militants. The United Kingdom, the United States, and other western powers have made an effort to improve relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, which have been particularly tense since the November, and Yousuf Raza Gilani, the new prime minister of Pakistan, is facing considerable domestic and international pressure.
2. The temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza seems to be holding, but tensions continue to rise. On Sunday, Hamas announced that it would terminate the ceasefire if Israel continued to maintain its blockade on Gaza. Israel maintains that the blockade is intended to prevent the shipment of weapons into Gaza, but the blockade also prevents the shipment of food, energy, and reconstruction materials into the territory. Both U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. President Barack Obama have called on Israel to reopen its borders with Gaza.
3. Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was arrested last week. A central player in the ongoing civil war in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nkunda was believed responsible for the destabilization of the region which has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and an estimated 5.4 million deaths—half of whom were children—during the past ten years. Nkunda’s arrest presents an opportunity for peace in the eastern DRC. It also represents a fundamental shift in relations between the Congo and its eastern neighbor, Rwanda. The two countries have had tense relations since the mid-1990s, but Nkudna’s arrest was part of a joint operation and Rwandan troops are currently cooperating with the Congolese military to track down remnants of guerilla forces operating in the region.
4. A national referendum on a new constitution in Bolivia is currently underway. The constitution, promoted by Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, is widely expected to pass given Morales’ popularity. However, several groups are campaigning against the constitution, including the Christian groups and the country’s relatively wealthy. If passed, the new constitution would introduce “community justice,” provide for the election of judges, remove Catholicism as the official state religion, and cap landholdings at 5,000 hectares.
5. Europe continues to struggle with the fallout from the global economic crisis. On Friday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a new €600 million stimulus package targeting the French newspaper industry. The Spanish government has called on its citizens to engage in “patriotic” shopping, buying Spanish products as a way to address the economic downturn in that country. Meanwhile, Iceland became the first county to witness a government collapse as a result of the crisis. The prime minister of Iceland, Geir Haarde, resigned on Friday, paving the way for early elections and a potentially dramatic shift to the left after nearly twenty years of liberalization in the country. In November, Iceland became the first developed country to have to turn to the International Monetary Fund since 1976.
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Tagged Barack Obama, Bolivia, civil war, constitution, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Evo Morales, Five Stories You Might Have Missed, France, Gaza, global economic crisis, Guantánamo, Hamas, Iceland, India, Iraq, Israel, Laurent Nkunda, Mumbai, Pakistan, Rwanda, Spain, terrorism