Daily Archives: March 25, 2011

Never mind wise: is war on Libya even constitutional?

We’ve been at war with Libya for about a week. The question here is not whether we should be at war with Libya, but rather, does the President have the right to take us to war with Libya absent a provocation against the United States?

Giving the power to go to war to Congress, the U.S. Constitution states under Article I, section 8 that “Congress shall have the power … to declare war…” While the President is the Commander-in-Chief, the Constitution does not give him the right to use the armed forces at will. Does that, as CATO scholar John Samples and others have asked, make the acts of war in Libya unconstitutional?

Some members of Congress think so. Rep. Scott Ringell, a freshman from Virginia, said that the Libya hostilities “should trigger a debate within Congress and [among] the American people about proper interpretation and application of [the] Constitution. […]” Some Democrats have spoken out questioning the validity of the action. In the past, Senators Obama and Biden both said the president lacks the authority to do what President Obama has done.

Kind of reminds me of the old saying that “[w]here you stand on an issue depends on where you sit.” Now that he’s in the Oval Office, and after pressure to “do something,” the Barack Obama the President’s position is the opposite of Barack Obama the Senator from Illinois and candidate for President. Same for the Veep.

Flip-flops aside, does the President have the right bomb Libya? Does the Constitution support his unilateral action against Libya without the consent of Congress?

Perhaps Vice-President Biden can offer the President some guidance on the topic. As Samples notes, Biden has spoken on the original meaning of Art.1, Section 8 of the Constitution before:

Vice President (then Senator) Joseph Biden recalled that meaning in a speech on the Senate floor on July 30, 1998. He noted that the original draft of the Constitution would have empowered Congress to “make war.” James Madison and Elbridge Gerry moved that the language be changed to “declare war” so that the president would have the power “to repel sudden attacks.” Biden pointed out that only one framer, Pierce Butler of South Carolina, thought the president should have the power to initiate war.

Biden concluded that under the Constitution, the president could not use force without prior authorization unless it was necessary to “repel a sudden attack.” Presidential candidate Barack Obama agreed in 2007: “the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

In the opinion of the Veep, then, the President is acting outside of his Constitutional powers. Biden went on:

The rationale for vesting the power to launch war in Congress was simple. The Framers’ views were dominated by their experience with the British King, who had unfettered power to start wars. Such powers the Framers were determined to deny the President.

Don’t for a minute think that it is only the conservatives in Congress that are questioning the President’s authority, either. Rick Warnick questions the rationale, too.

And so, once again America has attacked an oil-rich Arab country. This time by order of a Democratic commander-in-chief. Next time somebody tells me, “Elections have consequences,” I think I’ll ask for proof. When you look at it substantively, there is just too much bipartisanship in Washington.

It’s not just bipartisanship, Rick; it’s corruption. Power corrupts, on both sides of the aisle. All too often, that has nothing to do with the party, and everything to do with the system. As long as the White House is held by an individual more interested in “doing something” than in “doing the right thing,” then we will have the kind of lawless and dangerous actions that we’re seeing now in Libya.

Congress has to step up to the President if we’re to see a check to his little war in Libya. But I’m not optimistic. Pigs will fly before we see leadership necessary out of the House or Senate. While there have been a few speeches criticizing or condemning the action, we are unlikely to see anything more. The President has little to lose from Congress, and he knows that Congress will fold if backed against the wall.