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Libya war shows limits of War Powers Act

Under the War Powers Act, President Barack Obama had until Friday to get congressional authorization to continue U.S. military operations in Libya. But the day passed without his even asking for it, which means he has to disengage within 30 days. Obama may not heed that requirement either.

Some members of Congress, from both parties, are unhappy about the administration’s disregard of the law. Six Senate Republicans wrote him a letter asking if he plans to meet its terms, while Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, says he’ll introduce a bill to invoke the law in an attempt to force withdrawal.

Obama is on the horns of a dilemma. As a candidate, he said the president does not have the power to go to war on his own except in cases of actual or likely attack. But if he were to ask Congress to authorize the Libyan intervention, he would probably be rebuffed. So he’s chosen to simply ignore the law.

But ignoring laws is not what presidents promise to do when they are sworn in. Unless Obama wants to make the case that it’s unconstitutional, as some experts think, he should act (belatedly) to follow it or explain why the Libya operations don’t qualify. The latter would be a stretch, but maybe Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to elaborate on his theory that Libya is merely a “limited kinetic action,” not a war.

Still, the fault here is not all Obama’s. He has reason to think a president can get away with taking unilateral military action, since Congress is usually reluctant to object. It’s easier for lawmakers to carp than to take action that involves shouldering responsibility for the ensuing outcome.

If Congress wants to assert itself on Libya, it always has the option to pass legislation cutting off funding for those operations, which have cost some $750 million so far. Or it could pass a resolution demanding that Obama pull out our forces. Either step would probably force the administration to turn over the mission to NATO.

The war in Libya has been hard to justify from the start because there is no important U.S. security interest at stake and because the president’s goal of evicting Moammar Gadhafi appears more than a limited air campaign is likely to achieve. And now that we’re in, there seems to be no clear strategy to get out.

But a mere law, untested in the courts, is not much of a check on presidential decision-making if Congress lacks the backbone to use the powers it has. By not acting, members are inviting Obama to defy them.

(Chicago Tribune, May 23)