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The President and Congress are on a collision course regarding American military power in the world. The Obama Administration prides itself on transparency and limited executive power. It may be more like the Bush military midset than it is willing to admit.

Members of both parties in the US Congress are moving to sue the Obama administration regarding its actions in Libya. Led by Speaker of the House John Boehner, many in Congress believe that the administration has violated the terms of the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires the president to get authorization from Congress once US forces have been engaged in a combat role. The president based his involvement in Libya on the obligations the United States has as the leader of the NATO alliance. But he committed US assets without consulting with or notifying the US Congress, which he has the right to do as commander-in-chief of the US armed forces. The issue of Congress having any control over the matter arises when US forces are involved for an extended period of time.

President Obama will arrive at a crossroads regarding Libya soon, forced by Congress to either consult with them and follow their direction, or he will have to act independently of Congress, asserting his power as commander-in-chief under Article II of the US Constitution. The 1973 War Powers Act has never been enforced by Congress even though many presidents since its passage have violated it. The Executive Branch has been able to exercise its military power without restraint by Congress under the assumption that if push came to constitutional shove, the law would not be able to withstand judicial review by the Supreme Court. The president would find himself vindicated as the highest court would most likely find the War Powers Act too restrictive over the commander-in-chief, who needs to act swiftly and effectively in matters of national security.

Therein lies the rub. Both parties in Congress have criticized the president’s actions in Libya saying that US vital interests were not threatened by the eruption of the Libyan civil war earlier this year. The United States was acting out of humanitarian concern for Libyan populations under rebel control, operating under the assumption that Kaddafi forces would annihilate and slaughter thousands of innocent civilians. It was not considered by NATO or the Defense Department that months after the start of the uprising against the Kaddafi regime, the rebels’ fight would end up at a stalemate. It will take increased military assistance from NATO, with the US in the lead, to tip the scales against Kaddafi loyalists and allow the rebels to gain the upper hand.

As the Libyan civil war has dragged on, the French government has recognized the Libyan revolutionary Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, thereby throwing the political weight of the European Union squarely behind the rebels along with the military might of NATO. For the United States to follow suit, the Obama Administration needs to know more about the nature of this group, whether it has links to Al Qaeda, and whether or not it can build democratic institutions in Libya with which the US government can form a lasting partnership. In the interim, President Obama must come clean with the American people and fall into compliance vis a vis the stipulations of the War Powers Act. Given the fact that he grew up in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, he should be the first to understand the sensitivity of the Congress and the American people to rapidly increasing military power within the presidency.

Image by George Cassutto

Copyright 2011
Used with permission