Home/Daniel Larison/Libya and the War Powers Resolution

Libya and the War Powers Resolution

When is the WPR triggered? That is the source of the current interbranch debate. Obama continues to assert that operations against Libya do not qualify as hostilities because they are limited and do not involve the commitment of ground forces. This reveals the trigger for WPR applicability: hostilities. Is the president correct? It is true that the WPR does not define “hostilities.” However, the legislative history of the WPR indicates that it was partially motivated by the Cambodian air war, initiated by Nixon without congressional authorization. That campaign, like Libya, was limited to air assets with very little risk of combat losses. Nonetheless, Congress sought to address not only the initiation of large-scale combat operations, but also small-scale engagements that create the risk of conflagration and quagmire and put the Congress in the almost impossible position of forcing an end to a conflict after the U.S. has already committed itself to achieving some strategic objective [bold mine-DL]. Against this background, Libya seems to be exactly the type of situation the law was intended to avert.

All of this indicates that Obama has in fact violated the terms of the WPR — not only by continuing operations beyond 60 days, but by initiating the operation without first securing express congressional authorization. ~Geoffrey Corn

The amazing thing about the administration’s position is that it has actually wrapped itself in the War Powers Resolution that it is egregiously violating as a way of deflecting criticism. It was quite a display last week during the Foreign Relations Committee hearing when Kerry was gushing about how significant it was that Obama and his advisors accepted the constitutionality of the WPR. To hear Kerry tell it, Obama was setting a new standard for the scrupulous adherence to the law instead of hollowing out the last vestiges of the check on executive war-making. This is what makes the dishonest defense of the Libyan war that the U.S. is not involved in hostilities particularly galling. The administration theoretically accepts the limits the WPR imposes on the executive, but then weasels its way out of those limits despite the fact that they were intended to prevent exactly this kind of military action.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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