Photo by Nick Paris

The War Powers Act (War Powers Resolution)

Passed in 1973 in the wake of the Korean and Vietnam wars, over a veto from president Nixon, the War Powers Act requires a president to provide notice to Congress within 48 hours after any military action is orchestrated. In addition, it forbids armed forces from remaining longer than 60 days abroad — with a further 30-day withdrawal period — without congressional consent or a formal declaration of war. The constitutionality of the resolution is somewhat contested, but so far a total of 118 reports have been sent to Congress by presidents, making the law effectively active by precedent.

The United States unleashed warplanes with the help of European forces against Libyan leader Qaddafi and his government less than a month ago. Since then, Congress members — including Speaker of the House John Boehner — question whether or not Obama violated the War Powers Act. Amid calls for his impeachment, many ask, “What happens next?” UCSC Politics Professor Daniel Wirls sat down with City on a Hill Press to analyze the President’s decision to intervene. Wirls’ most recent book is dubbed Irrational Security: The Politics of Defense from Reagan to Obama and his interests include Cold War and post-Cold War military policy.

City on a Hill Press: First off, how much of the situation in Libya is about oil?

Daniel Wirls: It’s not like Libya was holding its oil before the war — to me that doesn’t seem major. That hardly means I think the U.S. only does things for good reasons, I just don’t think oil explains why we’re in Libya.

So then, what’s your problem with Libya?

I don’t agree with our decision to intervene — sometimes the idea of where we intervene is influenced by where we can use our military force effectively … We can go bomb stuff in the Libyan desert, but we can’t necessarily do the same thing as neatly in the Ivory Coast where many more people are dying. That would involve putting soldiers on the ground and could get very, very messy … In some ways, our interventions are governed by what we’re really good at: fairly precise use of air power.

Why is Congress so mad? Is it the principle of checks and balances or a power struggle?

There’s always going to be a political power struggle, but in this case [Congress] has a pretty good point … If you look at the Gulf War — even going back to Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — Congress, by fairly large majorities, passed authorization for the use of force before any fighting had begun … There’s a pretty strong argument that even the formalities of the War Powers Act were not adhered to [in this case] … [Congress] can either vote to get out, which they won’t, or they can tell Obama that the clock is ticking, in which case they’re hoping that we’ll be out of there before too long … My guess is that this will just die out in Congress.

What exactly did Obama do wrong?

It’s not that Congress is saying that what [he] did is wrong, but that the way [he] handled it was … The combination of presidential power as commander-in-chief and an international decision-making structure that often calls on U.S. force to do what the U.N. needs creates a powerful mechanism for the president to step outside the Constitution … Some argue that the War Powers Act is a band-aid that has not worked. The question is, what should the change in the Constitution look like? That’s a little tricky. I would almost hate to see what some of those amendments would look like.

Every president since FDR has both participated in and escalated military conflict in another country. What do you make of this trend?

My argument in particular is that the U.S. has too much invested in military force. That doesn’t just hurt us as a country in terms of the fiscal budget, but [also] that amount of power tempts us to use it at times when we shouldn’t. Iraq is the ultimate case in point … If we dropped some of our power, we would be forced to cooperate with allies more and follow the process that led to Libya … That temptation of going it alone is in many ways really the problem, and often a bad idea.

So what’s the lesson here?

The positive lesson might be that [the international community] really can act together — not to say that we always should but that it is possible to reach a fairly profound level of cooperation. … There’s a way in which the Libyan operation could be a model for how these things are to be done. … First and foremost, we’d better hope that Egypt makes a successful transition to some reasonable version of assembly.