What does the Libya lawsuit mean?
President Barack Obama plans to defend U.S. military involvement in Libya to Congress, the White House says.
June 15th, 2011
03:08 PM ET

What does the Libya lawsuit mean?

Editor's Note: Matthew Waxman is Associate Professor at Columbia Law School and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Professor Waxman.

Amar C. Bakshi: A bipartisan group of House members said today they are filing a lawsuit that challenges U.S. participation in the Libya military mission. What does this  lawsuit mean?

Matthew Waxman: The War Powers Resolution was enacted in the wake of the Vietnam War to prevent the President from engaging in wars and major military adventures without Congress’s explicit consent.  It does so by requiring the President to withdraw U.S. military forces from armed hostilities within 60 days unless Congress expressly approves otherwise.

The following question has since arisen many times: What remedy exists if the President ignores the requirements set out in that resolution? What happens, for example, if 60 days passes and Congress hasn’t authorized the use of force but the President continues to direct military activities abroad?

There are several types of remedies:

The first is litigation: members of Congress or other interested parties could sue the President, arguing that he is acting illegally.  They could seek a court judgment ordering the cessation of military operations. That is what’s apparently about to happen now.

The second is that Congress could use its legislative power:  it could pass a law prohibiting the military operations or it could use the “power of the purse” to strip funding for military operations. Either way, Congress could legislatively force the President to stop the operations, but this is very hard to pull off politically.

The third remedy is political, and this is the likely to be the most consequential one in this case: Members of Congress could use the argument that the President is violating the law as a political stick to try to pressure the President in certain ways, extract concessions from him, force him to spend political capital, and gain a greater say in managing or curbing the operation.

Why hasn’t President Obama requested formal Congressional authorization for the Libya intervention?

It’s not really clear exactly why President Obama hasn’t requested formal Congresional authorization, especially because - at least early on – intervention was being loudly championed by some members of congress.  Over time, as the operation has dragged on, though, Congressional support has eroded.

Perhaps one reason President Obama did not seek Congressional authorization was that the White House felt it didn’t need it for this type of operation, and it didn’t want to concede that point.

Another possibility is that the President – with other big legislative agenda items currently at stake – did not want to expose Libya operations to a major Congressional debate.

Will this suit go anywhere?

The idea of suing the President for violation of the War Powers Resolution is not a new one. This was tried, for example, by some members of Congress during the Kosovo operations in 1999 when, similar to this situation, President Clinton conducted major military operations in conjunction with NATO past the sixty day deadline in the War Powers Resolution.  Some members of Congress sued, but the Court ended up tossing the lawsuit out.

I’d expect a similar outcome in this particular case because courts tend to be very reluctant to wade into War Powers disputes between the political branches of Congress.

How can Obama argue that he does not need Congressional authorization?

There are a couple of possible arguments. The Obama Administration is saying we should expect its legal explanation very soon, so we’ll then have a clearer picture of its arguments.

Some Presidents – including President Richard Nixon when he unsuccessfully vetoed the War Powers Resolution – have argued that it’s unconstitutional.

It is more likely that President Obama will argue that these particular operations in Libya don’t trigger the War Powers Resolution’s sixty day withdrawal deadline requirement because the specific type of operations conducted by American forces don’t rise to the level of combat hostilities contemplated by the statute.  The Administration may argue specifically that the U.S. forces are almost entirely in a support role; that we don’t have boots on the ground; and that our forces are not directly engaging enemy forces with hostile fire.

For those reasons the Administration may argue the sixty-day clock hasn’t really been ticking since we handed over the vast bulk of air operations to other NATO coalition partners.

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Topics: Law • Libya • Q&A

soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. p m

    in a large sea of representatives in the House there will always be differences of opinions. the representatives need to show their donors that they are loved and respected because of the money given. hmmm... I wonder if Ghaddafi is going to plan on donating to any of the 10 fighting for a cause that serves the USA in no way whatsoever. If he doesnt do it soon I will bet they will lose interest.

    June 17, 2011 at 10:59 am | Reply
  2. Gary Farmer

    Hard times require fast action and fast decisions. Without this change can never occur. The political quagmire prevents accomplishments and these damn assh!#* need to back off of people who are not afraid to make decisions.We need to trust and respect the top leaders that WE elect! Bin laden is dead and we have a chance for people with pre-existing medical conditions to be treated fairly. I'm going to vote for Obama again as is my right as an American.

    June 17, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Reply
    • oldboldgold

      Good job.

      June 17, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  3. craig sanes

    This is no reflection on what is, or is not, required in Lybia as far as outside intervention.. The War Powers Resolution was at the outset, regardless of intended design, employed as a bi-partisan tool where the congressional sanctioning would be pitted against war time presidential popularity. Historically when presidents declare war their popularity, especially when in waining, tends to be restored.

    But a lot has happened since Post Vietnam congressional renovations, Kosovo, and Somalia. Since then the increasing privitization of military contracts, as well as the cropping up of wholey private institutions working in conjuncion with international military forces, kind of like the 'Pinkertons' , have unavoidably changed the nature of war time presidential policies.

    Prior the employment or deployment of the resolution was almost strickly a political venture. but now with the act of war,.. police action, intervention, what ever you want to call it, the resolution can open whole new doors, not only for extended military budgets, but for many different tiers in the private sector, as well: security, insurance, legal consulting, reinfrastructuring ( a whiole booming new industry). Lets face it..Lobbyists courting war time presidental administrations have become vast and diverse; so much so, in terms of presidential obligation ( jobs, foreign investment, etc. ) any current administration could scarcely just say.. NO!

    The asnwer is and will continue to be YES!, And the 60 justification and warrant for extended internment and occupation could very likely in the future come to be recognized as a 'permit approval waiting period' for entities both public and private, alike, to keep there hands on other peoples stuff.

    For these reasons, even more than for the innitial purpose of the bill, it is not only important to bring this out into the open, but push even further. This is not Sarah Palins 'plausibly' inappropriate emails we are going after. This is actually important. this resolution will, really already has, become a global vehicle for the establishment of new economic regimes. That is not the resolutions purpose, and I would not want it to be.

    June 17, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  4. Observer1290

    It means that Obama's time has come:


    June 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  5. oldboldgold


    June 17, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  6. oldboldgold

    VOTE THIRD PARTY AND THROW OUT THE REP/DEMS. NEITHER PARTY REPRESENTS THE PEOPLE. DON'T BUY IN TO ELECTING MORE REPUBLICANS. Yes, Barack Obama has violated the Constitution. No, we do not want the Republicans in. I will vote Green Party in 2012.

    June 17, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  7. Wasabiwahabi

    Larouche is a douche.

    June 17, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Reply
  8. believethis

    half black or half white he is still an idiot

    June 19, 2011 at 8:40 am | Reply
    • Shadaron

      I doubt very much if it was true renco code, that has to run on a 1min live chart and a 2min off line chart. This is the same mob that were selling an ovieprrced EA several months ago, the sales pitch was exactly the same and I have a very good memory for voice recognition. The webinar was supposed to be live what I would like to know is that if it was live why was all the voice dubbing mistakes in the same place (I listened to more that one), why were the Q&A's always the same and why was it always the same list of names that were first on board. Also they bragges about 48,000 signed up for the webinar and they were selling only 100 copies yet days after the webinar they are still sending out emails offering another chance to get in. If they still had not sold the 100 copies then it was a very poor takeup or they were selling what ever number of copies they could get rid of to those unfortunate enough to get caught. I did get the free down loads and installed the indicators and the trend direction was showing DOWN when the price was going UP and this occurred in more than one place. Run the other way with this lot.

      July 6, 2014 at 6:26 am | Reply
    • Open

      Despite all the Euro political and miatlry shortcomings this Lybia operation is going very well. And yes like i posted 2 months ago this a wakeup call and there be great lessons to learn from.The operation it self is going extremly well. Benghazi is safe and Misrata is freed. The 6 major cities between them will be lost for the Khadaffi regime all tho i doubt the rebels gonne make a push for them. As i stated before yes Europe could put some brigades on the ground if needed to isolate Tripoli. But noone really wants that. Why loose lifes and more money. Even if we can find the forces and countries willing to send them.And we got the rebels to do that. Soon they will start the push on Tripoli. They getting more troops and weapons each day that passes.In a few weeks Tripoli will be cut off. The days of the Khadaffi regime are numbered.Like it or not this will be the way how lot of future operations like this Lybia situation will be run.Just like the initial operation in Afghanistan before they decided to send a massive groundforce in.This is the way it gonne go the coming years, decades even. Noone wants to send in maasive boots on the ground anymore. That ship has sailed.It gonne be kick in the door, bomb whats a threat, then the uavs and drones come, special forces, arm the locals and then help them.Theres only gonne be boots on the ground if there is really no other way. And that gonne be short and heavy. And then get out. Months not years. Forget about occupying countries.Thats the new Nato doctrine for this type of conflicts.Doubt Khadaffi will last much longer.

      July 21, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • Johan

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      July 25, 2014 at 7:22 pm | Reply
  9. believethis

    half black or half white he is still and idiot

    June 19, 2011 at 8:40 am | Reply
  10. justice



    June 19, 2011 at 8:49 am | Reply
    • Wasabiwahabi


      June 19, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  11. Claude

    We are simply not killing each other fast enough. More armies, more weapons, more interventions, are urgently required to maintain our present systems consisting of we are different and better than you and so we have to kill all of you because you're not like us. Let's get on with it. The more deaths the better.

    June 19, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Reply
    • Wasabiwahabi

      Quite your whining, cry-baby!

      June 20, 2011 at 6:42 am | Reply
  12. Kelby

    It means RON PAUL is finally winning!! And YOU, CNN, will PAY DEARLY for lying to all of us all these years!! You will pay in BLOOD!

    June 21, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  13. Randolph Rohrdanz

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    June 8, 2013 at 12:32 am | Reply
  14. Kaylyn

    That's what we've all been waiting for! Great pontgsi!

    July 5, 2014 at 11:52 am | Reply
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