The Nation: In Libya, US Forgot About Congress

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U.S. President Barack Obama leaving the East Room of the White House after delivering a statement about Libya on. After the UN authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, the U.S. and allied forces launched attacks on Gadhafi forces. i i

U.S. President Barack Obama leaving the East Room of the White House after delivering a statement about Libya on. After the UN authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, the U.S. and allied forces launched attacks on Gadhafi forces. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama leaving the East Room of the White House after delivering a statement about Libya on. After the UN authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, the U.S. and allied forces launched attacks on Gadhafi forces.

U.S. President Barack Obama leaving the East Room of the White House after delivering a statement about Libya on. After the UN authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, the U.S. and allied forces launched attacks on Gadhafi forces.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.

The grotesque extremes to which Moammar Gadhafi has gone to threaten the people of Libya — and to act on those threats — have left the self-proclaimed "king of kings" with few defenders in northern Africa, the Middle East or the international community.

Even among frequent critics of U.S. interventions abroad, there is disgust with Gadhafi, and with the palpable disdain he has expressed for the legitimate aspirations of his own people.

The circumstance is made easier by the fact that the bombing of Libya by U.S. and allied planes has been carried out under the auspices of the United Nations. And with his words and his initial reluctance with regard to taking military action, President Obama has seemed to avoid many of the excesses of his predecessors.

Yet, now the headline on CNN reads "Libya War."

This war, like so many before it, has neither been debated nor declared by the Congress of the United States.

The penchant of presidents of embark upon military adventures without consulting Congress is now so pronounced that it is barely noted anymore that the Constitution says "Congress shall have power to... declare War."

Unless the United States is immediately threatened, presidents aren't supposed to declare wars or launch them on their own.

Of all the checks and balances outlined in the constitution, none is more significant than the power to declare war.
Yet, since World War II, presidents have launched attacks, interventions and wars without declarations. And that has happened again.

There are plenty of explanations for why this happens. Treaties that require to bind the United States to the United Nations. The War Powers Act. The general sense that members of Congress would prefer to let presidents call the shots.

But the Constitution does not establish any exit strategies for members of the Congress, They are supposed to provide advice and consent — or to deny it.

Unfortunately, that just does not happen anymore.

When the United States ratified the United Nations treaty after World War II, Senators Henrik Shipstead and William Langer were the only Senators to vote "no" on the UN Charter. Other senators, California's Hiram Johnson and Wisconsin's Robert M. La Follette Jr., expressed reservations.

What was their fear? The senators worried that, under the agreement with the United Nations, presidents would involve U.S. troops in wars launched by the United Nations — without ever consulting Congress.

Those fears were well founded, as history would soon confirm, when President Truman sent U.S. troops to Korea as part of a UN mission — but without a congressional declaration.

President Obama's approval of an intervention in Libya has also skipped the Congress.

Was this necessary? Of course not. Obama could have consulted Congress; indeed, if the issue was pressing, he could have asked that the House and Senate be called into session over the weekend. Had the president gone to the Congress, it is doubtful that he would have met with opposition. As noted above, Gadhafi has few defenders.

Consulting Congress does not mean that Congress will block a war. The constitutional system of checks and balances was not established merely to stop wars; it was established to allow members of Congress to add their insights, to propose timelines, to set limits and parameters for military initiatives.

The debate, the discussion, the sifting and winnowing of information: This is the point.

Unfortunately, it is a point that Obama has missed.

The United States is now deep into what CNN calls the "Libya War," yet there has been no congressional debate, no advice or consent, no checks and balances.

The Republic was well served by the drafters of a constitution, who gave the war-making power to Congress.

They were wise, and right, to do so. And any president who fails to consult congress before engaging in warmaking ill serves the founding document and the republic.

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