Best Drupal HostingBest Joomla HostingBest Wordpress Hosting

World Policy Journal is proud to share our weekly podcast, World Policy On Air, featuring former Newsweek On Air host David Alpern. Click here to subscribe on iTunes!



Unanswered Questions

By Henry “Chip” Carey

In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the conflict in Libya—the most recently launched of the three wars America is currently fighting in the Muslim world—was pushed off the front pages. One issue that has escaped attention is Congress’s impending deadline to authorize U.S. troops to remain in harm’s way in Libya. According to the War Powers Act, Congress has only until May 18 to authorize a continued armed presence in Libya. Otherwise, the constant presence of U.S. warplanes in Libyan airspace, along with an unknown number of CIA and other agents on the ground, must halt—though an automatic 30-day extension is available at presidential initiative. June 16 is 90 days after President Obama informed Congress that these forces were in harm’s way.

Of course, the cart is already out of the block, and Secretary of State Clinton has repeatedly called for Muammar Gaddafi to resign. NATO has attacked his compound a number of times, killing members of Gaddafi’s family. It is the only situation within the wider “Arab Spring” that  the United States has responded to with military force—although arguably, repression just as brutal has occurred in Syria and Bahrain, among others).

The desire to save lives in Libya from Gaddafi’s massacres was legally sanctioned by UN Security Council Resolution 1973. However, if the United States is going to uphold its values about the rule of law, as well as  maintain the humanitarian focus of the mission, it should not allow the initial mission of saving lives to be overtaken by the desire to remove Gaddafi.

So far, there has been absolutely no debate about the fact that U.S. law in this area has not been tested in the courts—or indeed, whether those in power truly understand it.  No one seems to care what the statutory text says or means. Essentially, Congress is being treated as ultimately unimportant, and the system of checks and balances in the Constitution is being waived by an imperial presidency.

Congress has a role that is defined by Constitutional law. In this case, Congress hypocritically demands that its voice be heard and its laws be enforced—but not when it comes to Libya. The Constitution does not say that the commander-in-chief has the right to ignore the law. If the President ignores the War Powers Act, the U.S. legal system requires that he be held accountable.

Perhaps necessity could be a legal defense for the United States staying in Libya, despite the requirements of the War Powers Act. Certainly no one is being prosecuted or going to jail.  President Nixon signed the War Powers Act in order to keep future presidents from deploying troops for extended periods of time without Congressional authorization—exactly what is now happening in Libya.  Congress and potential litigants should not refrain from enforcing their legal rights, even if they fear being deemed unpatriotic for challenging the President’s war powers. If Congress lacks the constitutional authority to regulate war powers, it is high time the country find out.

If the Supreme Court wishes to deny Congress standing to sue, then let us hear its explanation. Is this a political question? And if so, why? Otherwise, it can only be assumed that our legal system lacks the power to enforce the rule of law whenever the country is at war.


Henry "Chip" Carey is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.


Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nasser Nouri


Anonymous's picture
Nixon & the WPA

You write: "President Nixon signed the War Powers Act in order to keep future presidents from deploying troops for extended periods of time without Congressional authorization—exactly what is now happening in Libya."

But this is blatantly untrue. Nixon vetoed the War Powers Act because he felt it usurped his presidential powers. Congress overrode his veto. In the years after he left office, Nixon never wavered in his belief the law was unconstitutional.

Post new comment
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly. If you have a Gravatar account, used to display your avatar.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image. Ignore spaces and be careful about upper and lower case.


Around WPI

Jihad in Sub-Saharan Africa 

This paper, “Jihad in Sub-Saharan Africa: Challenging the Narratives of the War on Terror,” examines the history of Islamic movements in Africa's Sahel region to contextualize current conflicts.

World Economic Roundtable with Vicente Fox 

In this World Economic Roundtable, former Mexican President Vicente Fox discusses his current quest to make his country a hub for technology. 

Intern at World Policy

Want to join our team? Looking for an experience at one of the most highly sought-after internships for ambitious students? Application details here.


Al Gore presides over Arctic Roundtable 

As the United States prepares to assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015, this inaugural convening of the Arctic Deeply Roundtables launches a vital conversation for our times. 


When the Senate Worked for Us:
New book offers untold stories of how activist staffers countered corporate lobbies in the U.S.

MA in International Policy and Development
Middlebury Institute (Monterey, CA): Put theory into practice through client-based coursework. Apply by Feb. 1.

Millennium Project’s State of the Future 19.0: Collective Intelligence on the Future of the World


To learn about the latest in media, programming, and fellowship, subscribe to the World Policy Weekly Newsletter and read through our archives.

World Policy on Facebook