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Dunsmore: War Powers

07/01/11 7:55AM By Barrie Dunsmore
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(HOST) The continuing military stalemate in Libya has prompted charges in Congress that in failing to obtain congressional approval for the operation, President Obama is in violation of the War Powers resolution. This morning, commentator and veteran ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore, gives us some background.

(DUNSMORE) President Barak Obama's shifting position on the War Powers resolution is a perfect illustration of the old saw, where you stand depends on where you sit.

When Barack Obama was sitting in the Senate, he took a firm stand in favor of the War Powers Resolution. Now that he is sitting on the Oval Office his stand on the resolution is to ignore it.

The War Powers resolution was passed in 1973. It was a reflection of Congressional frustration at having been marginalized by presidents Johnson and Nixon in their conduct of the Vietnam War. The resolution stipulates that presidents must end any military hostilities that have not received Congressional blessing - 60 days after they have begun.

Article one of the U.S. Constitution says "The Congress shall have the power... to declare war." But article two states, "the president shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States." With this ambiguity, of the countless wars America has engaged in since its inception, only five were officially declared by Congress. The last of those was World War II. Notably Korea and Vietnam were not declared wars. The War Powers resolution was supposed to remedy this anomaly, but it hasn't. Since it was passed, every president has questioned its constitutionality although the law has never been tested in the Supreme Court.

I remember going up to the Capitol to cover the testimonies of various secretaries of state - most often before the Foreign Relations and Arms Services committees. It didn't seem to matter what party the secretary was from - or which party was in charge of the committee. Each senator or congressman would make speeches thinly disguised as questions to show how brilliant he or she was - although in my view usually proving quite the opposite. I remember remarking to friends that my faith in democracy varied in inverse proportion to the hours I had to spend at such hearings.

But I was wrong. What I failed to recognize was that this was a kind of tribal ritual that only the participants themselves truly understand - but without which America's system of government would not work. The Constitution explicitly created the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government so that no single one would become all powerful. And under that system, the president is actually strengthened if he gets the support of Congress for on-going American military engagements.

In the case of Libya, Obama hasn't played the game, arguing instead that the intervention in Libya doesn't meet the threshold of being a war - so he doesn't need Congressional approval. This may be clever but counterproductive.

Congress doesn't actually want the responsibility of deciding what to do in Libya, but it doesn't want to be ignored either. At a hearing on the subject this week, Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee accused the Obama administration of "sticking a stick in the eye of Congress." On that, the senator may be right.

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