Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Obama in Africa

by STEVE BREYMAN

Critics of President Obama’s 2011 aerial intervention in Libya may recall one of that conflict’s most striking features: the administration’s failure to invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution (WPR). The War Powers Resolution is that tasteless congressional fruit of the late Vietnam War era. A war-weary Congress, finally cognizant of decade-long failure to perform its most important duty, passed the joint resolution over Nixon’s veto as US troops departed South Vietnam for home. Engendered by a well-founded if woefully tardy legislative realization that presidents of neither party could be trusted with sole authority over decisions regarding overseas bombing, strafing, and shooting—never mind that the Constitution provided no such unilateral power—the WPR placed some real if manageable limits on presidential war making power.

The WPR permits the president to commit US forces abroad only with the express authorization of Congress or when forced to by “a national emergency created by attack on the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” The law requires the president to alert Congress within forty-eight hours of committing armed forces to combat. It limits their deployment to sixty days, plus a further thirty-day withdrawal period, without a declaration of war or authorization for the use of military force.

Without exception, chief executives from Nixon on claimed the act unconstitutional. It’s not as easy to play Imperial President when hemmed in by such legal nonsense. Nevertheless, presidents have by and large played along with the terms of the WPR, mostly because it hasn’t much cramped their interventionary muscles, and because successive Congresses have authorized presidential wars when asked. Party affiliation does not predict the most egregious gaming of the WPR. Clinton and Obama were and are as manipulative as were Reagan or the Bushs. Cowardly federal courts have shied away from determining the constitutionality of the law.

A strict reading of the law ought to have prevented nearly all of the 130 plus instances when presidents reported their armed actions to Congress under the resolution. This is so for the simple reason that the US and its armed forces rarely find themselves under attack. Ironically, 9/11, the ‘new Pearl Harbor,’ legally justified an armed response but the glaring absence of a conventional enemy (obvious to some of us even then) has bedeviled the US military ever since. But, of course, the WPR has not been subject to plain readings.

Instead, presidents have gone to war when they saw fit, twisting or ignoring the WPR as needed to preclude or fend off the principled protests of a handful of legislators. When compelled by the WPR to stop bombing Kosovo in 1999, Bill Clinton kept the planes flying more than two weeks past the sixty-day deadline on the theory that Congress had funded and thus implicitly authorized the operation, a reading that directly contradicted the resolution’s clause that funding was not equivalent to authorization. When compelled by the WPR to stop bombing Libya in 2011, Barack Obama kept the planes flying long past the deadline on the theory that the hundreds of sorties did not constitute “hostilities,” and that the operation was under NATO not US command.

Considering President Obama’s disingenuous response to the WPR in 2011, what explains his timely report to Congress of US aerial participation in the failed French extrication of its captive agent from Somalia? Newfound respect for the rule of law? Hardly. Instead, the action enables the President to claim he adhered to the law in a low risk one-off operation on behalf of an ally while scoring points with François Hollande. The US will collaborate closely with France as the war in Mali escalates. If US participation is limited to drones, there will not be much clamor for invocation of the WPR. The test will come should the French get bogged down in the vast deserts of northern Mali, and the armed US role expands.

The French expressed surprise, after the downing of an attack helicopter, at how well armed are its Islamist opponents in Mali. But why the surprise? The US knows, as France surely must, that thousands of Soviet-era MANPADS (shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles), among other lethal hardware, went missing following the fall of Ghaddafi. Tuareg members of Ghaddafi’s military likely made off with a bunch of them as they returned home to northern Mali. Some of these surely made their way into the hands of the new Islamist overlords of northern Mali who quickly sidelined the Tuareg struggle for an independent homeland. Only some portion of them are probably still functional (they require charged battery packs), but these are weapons that can far more easily down airliners than contemporary military aircraft. They are dream weapons for harming the innocent, for producing ‘collateral damage.’ They are on the loose as a direct result of US/NATO intervention in Libya, the conflict where President Obama failed to abide by the War Powers Resolution.

The WPR is the vehicle by which Congress sought to reassert its authority in the wake of its tragic failure in Vietnam. It is arguably unnecessary given Congress’ enumerated powers to declare war and mind the national treasury. But constitutionally necessary or not, the WPR is a failed means to the noble end of limiting executive war making. Congress should begin immediate hearings to consider a replacement, and in the meantime insist the current administration adhere to its imperfect writ in Mali and elsewhere.

Steve Breyman served as William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow at the US State Department in 2011-12.

Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
David Swanson
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail