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Jon Meacham: Obama didn’t follow the law with Libya campaign

Things always look different from the president’s side of the desk in the Oval Office.  Listening to President Obama speaking on U.S. military action in Libya, you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled across someone who might rightly be called George W. Obama. It was all there: the language of what the incumbent called “the great liberating tradition of this nation,” the sense of commitment to what Bush called “the expansion of freedom in all the world,” the promise to promote liberty against tyranny.Even more interesting — and equally important, I think — is President Obama’s cavalier attitude toward the most basic customs of consulting with the Congress on military action. George W. Bush acted constitutionally in Afghanistan and Iraq; President Obama chose a different, more unilateralist route.

Let me say that again: President Obama launched a military campaign in Libya without following the law.  According to the War Powers Act of 1973, the president of the United States has the power to act alone in the event of a “national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” As Yale Professor Bruce Ackerman wrote in Foreign Policy, the action in Libya fails that test.

The war powers resolution was passed in reaction to Korea and Vietnam, two wars that unfolded without a constitutionally-required congressional declaration.

Richard Nixon vetoed the war powers bill in 1973, only to have the Congress override him.  Before and since, presidents have struggled to balance the projection of American force with congressional approval, but one thing is very clear: Libya did not, and so far does not, pose an imminent threat to the security of our nation. To claim to defend liberty by breaking faith with the system that has secured our own suggests that America believes that the president always knows best, and that the country does, too. And sometimes the president does, and sometimes the country does.

But not every time.  That’s why we have laws: to check and balance the ambitions of men and factions. In recent weeks, President Obama has placed himself above democracy in order to serve an admittedly just cause.  But a lot of us would feel much better about this if he had met the obligations of our own democracy first.

Watch other “In Perspective” essays by Jon Meacham.



  • Susan

    President Obama acted openly and transparently with many international partners pursuant to a UN resolution. By most accounts, this multi-national force saved tens of thousands of lives. He should be applauded for his diplomatic success and the courage of his actions. I am somewhat appalled at the arrogant tone of your editorial and the callous disregard for the human tragedy that was unfolding.

  • Catalani

    Absolutely Susan, Meacham is the perfect example of why this country can’t fix itself. Narrow minded critic of something he obviously fails to understand. Timing is everything, from aggressive action to fixing an economy….and to present this to Congress for approval, having witnessed the last 2 years of Republican blocking, the most ever in history, and watch them stumble over themselves with this, would have been a catastrophe for us as well as the freedom fighters in Lybia. It was brilliant to get our people out first…..then get complete international UN approval….then make precise supportive military target hits to stifle and slow down the dictator…..then to properly hand over the control to the UN……helping to keep our boys and girls out of that fight…….all while avoiding the idiots that complain about every single thing Obama does…..beautiful, well done Barack…..and for those who don’t get it……you better wake up, cause laws were written by man, and they are sometimes not perfect…..and to bend the letter of the law, for the betterment and safety of all, all the while being ready to take your stupid, short sided criticism……which is also just holding us back from dealing with and fixing real problems, then roll it all up, and you tell me who is a hypocrite. Or perhaps racist…..

  • Catalani

    Yea, when Bill Moyers Journal passed away, I was oh so hopeful that the replacement would at least carry forward with some common sense and smart, accurate, in the publics best interest reporting.
    So much for hope…..if this program is going to produce and air such short sided, lack of balance programs….wow, what a shame to loose the depth and insight of Moyers and his guest.
    I also would like to amend my previous post where in I used the name Meacham. It may not be his personal feelings toward Obama, so I retract using his name, but the presentation was completely absurd, and you even give Bush props for his middle-east catastrophe. Are you kidding me…..OMG….Obama didn’t follow the letter of the law? ….Yea, right,while Bush ignored the constitution where your rights and privacy are concerned. And stuffed it down your thoat in the name of FEAR.
    What are you people drinking over there at NTK.

  • Sandy2015

    So you’re giving GW Bush credit for going to Congress & lying to get approval for his war in Iraq, and condemning Obama for not following the law, even though he was joined by many other countries & the Arab League, and putting no troops on the ground? When upwards of 4,000 American lives have been lost in Libya, you might have a point. Until then, I respectfully disagree.

  • Nathan

    The comments on this essay are stunning in their disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law, and it’s shameful to think that any of you actually watched and respected Bill Moyers. You really think Moyers would have SUPPORTED a U.S. military action in a foreign country without even CONSULTING Congress or the American people? You people consider yourselves PROGRESSIVES? Any longtime viewer of PBS and Moyers know he would ashamed of these comments.

    Susan, you say you are “somewhat appalled at the arrogant tone” of Meacham’s editorial? I’m more than somewhat appalled at your willingness to disregard the Constitution whenever you find it convenient to go to war. The Constitution EXPLICITLY gives Congress, not the President, the power to declare war. You are supporting the expansion of the imperial presidency and the ability of our government to run roughshod over our rights as citizens.

    Meacham wasn’t giving Bush “props,” as some of you put it. He was simply pointing out that EVEN one of the most reviled presidents in our nation’s history managed to ask Congress to approve military action in a foreign country before going to war. Obama didn’t even do that.

    This is an issue that true, committed progressives have been discussing for days now. Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the smartest liberal writer in the country, said this: “I defy anyone to identify any differences between the administration’s view of its own authority — that it has the right to ignore Congressional restrictions on its war powers — and the crux of Bush radicalism as expressed in the once-controversial memos by John Yoo and the Bush DOJ. There is none.”

    You all are giving Obama a free pass just because you support him politically, as do I. But just because we agree with his policies doesn’t mean we can allow him to abuse the Constitution. Meacham is right, and you all should be ashamed.

  • Nathan

    Susan, he said it was a “just cause.” This is not about whether attacking Libya was right or wrong. It’s about whether Obama should have consulted Congress — our elected representatives — first. Do you really think the president should have the power to start a war wherever or whenever he wants?

    You’re “appalled” by Meacham’s “callous disregard for the human tragedy that was unfolding.” I’m equally appalled by your callous disregard for democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law.

  • Sdrink

    If Meachem is the guy PBS got to replace Moyer, I’m done. i cannot watch and listen to shallow op-ed pieces in which these Beltway guys love to tear down Obama. Meacham, do you really want Rand Paul or Newt Gingrich or Donald Trump or Mitt Romney to replace Obama?

    If not, why focus your shallow diatribe against Obama? Of course Obama didn’t really follow the War Powers Act of 1973? Is Obama the issue you should be talking about? Or is it how presidents have repeatedly used their status as Commander in Chief without the approval of Congress.

    You should have offered some historical perspective, Mr. Meacham, if you were not just interested in pontificating against Obama. Here’s a quick run-down of Presidential actions taken without Congressional approval: Nixon invaded Cambodia in 1970 (which led to the War Powers Act that Nixon unsuccessfully vetoed). Reagan sent troops to Grenada and to Lebanon; he attacked Libya in 1986 in retaliation against attacks against our troops. H.W. invaded Panama and killed many civilians. Clinton attacked Haiti, Bosnia; he bombed Iraq in 1998 and with NATO support bombed Yugoslavia. Of course, President George Bush, your model of doing things correctly, did get congressional approval of sorts to invade a country that did not threaten us by cherry picking intelligence and lying to himself and to the nation. So, you would compare Bush’s lies that resulted in deaths of thousands of people unnecessarily and helped create the deficits we are in now with Obama’s efforts to help Libyans in a way that is not particularly risky for American troops?

    In short, an essay about how it might be time to revisit the War Powers Act would have been a good essay. (That’s what the broader minded Mr. Moyers would have done.) But, to compare the motives of Bush and Obama, even though the language MAY seem a bit similar, is absurd. Bush was making stuff up; it was and is a real situation in Libya that Obama did not make up.

    Action was required, quickly. Obama had to weigh many issues and fast. Does his conferencing with senior house and senate leaders not meaning anything to you? Did his successful efforts to within 30 days build a true coalition of the willing (not a paid coalition), including Arab states, to take over from the US forces not strike you as unique and noteworthy? Have you not heard that the Republican Party will do anything, ANYTHING to make Obama not succeed? Do you think the Republican House would have not used the situation to pontificate against Obama had he come before them? Did you not hear Republicans flip-flop on their positions about the Libya no fly zone: Obama is being weak for not establishing a no-fly zone and then turns around and says Obama didn’t come to Congress and ask our position. I presume you, Mr. Meacham, are just another envious Republican.

    I am real sad that people like you have the microphone you do have. To hell with PBS. PBS, if you can’t do better than John Meacham, then I am done with “The Need to Know.”

  • dmartin

    Last night was the first time I watched this show. Normally, I can’t stand PBS’ “bend over the grab the ankles” approach to this administration. Finally, some fresh air on Obama. Finally, some actual, real perspective. From the comments posted above it’s clear that the viewers of Bill Moyers only want to hear opinions that they themselves have, so much for tolerance and having perspective. Frankly, Sdrink, I don’t think you’ll be missed too much. Go over to MSNBC and watch Olberman and Maddow – they’ll tell you what you want to hear and give you all the Repub and Bush-bashing you need to sustain your existence. It amazes me how so many progressives thrive on hate and venom. It is your life-blood.

  • dmartin

    That’s right, pull the “race card” – always works to shut down discussion. How do you respond to that? Your an idiot – “beautiful, well done Barack” just shows how short sighted you actually are. No President should have the right to start a war and “bend the law”. If the President can do, then why do your kind make such a fuss when corporations do it? Their just bending the law. “Laws were written by man and they aren’t perfect.” Pure idiocy.

  • Skeptic

    Senate Resolution 85 []
    Status: Submitted in the Senate, considered, and agreed to without amendment and with a preamble by Unanimous Consent.

    Relevant content:
    “Strongly condemning the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya, including violent attacks on protesters demanding democratic reforms, and for other purposes.”

    Resolved, That the Senate–
    (7) urges the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory;

    The upper house of Congress was consulted and agreed to everything that is being done, before any of it was actually done. Is this dishonesty the price of dinner with Roger Ailes?

  • Anti-skeptic

    That’s not how it works, Skeptic. One branch of Congress doesn’t get to pass a resolution and absolve the government of any responsibility for its actions. Congressional declarations of war — or anything, for that matter, that has the full force and effect of the law — must be passed by both the House and Senate. You don’t get to pick and choose just because it’s convenient for you.

    More generally, your short-sighted diatribe is woefully misinformed. This has nothing to do with “tearing down Obama.” So you think, just because he’s Obama and you agree with his policies, he gets to escape criticism for bypassing the Constitution? That’s how we got George W. Bush. That’s what the Republicans did for 8 years. I support Obama, but we should be better. We should be the ones to follow the Constitution.

  • A Progressive


    If you never watch PBS ever again, I’ll consider it a victory for public broadcasting. I can’t believe all these supposed “Bill Moyers fans” who say they SUPPORT sending our troops into battle in a foreign country without even CONSULTING the Congress or the American people. Getting UN authorization is fine, but our Constitution EXPLICITLY provides Congress with the power to declare war, not the president. George W. Bush tore up the Constitution in his 8 years as president, and we all hated him for it. Now you want Obama to do the same thing? Bill Moyers would never have agreed with you.

    Also, it’s obvious you didn’t even watch the entire essay. Meacham talks about ALL of the historical context you talk about here, including Nixon and the War Powers Act.

    The fact that you’re willing to send American soldiers to fight in a foreign country at a moment’s notice, without asking Congress (OUR elected representatives) to approve it first, is chilling. People like you are why the Constitution doesn’t mean anything any more.

  • Sas Susan

    I am not expressing callous disregard for democracy, the Constitution, or the rule of law. I am a law professor, and I am dedicated to all three. The issues are simply not as black and white as you or Mr. Meacham present them. The requirements of the war powers act are not as clear as described, the definition of war is a complex issue, the effect of UN involvement, and even the unanimous consent resolution that was passed by the Senate urging immediate action. Regardless, the undeniable reality is that had Obama asked Congress to debate the issue, Benghazi would have been a bloodbath. Time was of the essence.

  • Sas Susan

    I am not expressing callous disregard for democracy, the Constitution, or the rule of law. I am a law professor, and I am dedicated to all three. The issues are simply not as black and white as you or Mr. Meacham present them. The requirements of the war powers act are not as clear as described, the definition of war is a complex issue, the effect of UN involvement, and even the unanimous consent resolution that was passed by the Senate urging immediate action. Regardless, the undeniable reality is that had Obama asked Congress to debate the issue, Benghazi would have been a bloodbath. Time was of the essence.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Susan, for your expertise and judgment. Meacham doesn’t have any legal credentials that I have found. One very significant issue is that we are acting in pursuance of a UN resolution, we have a treaty that allows us to participate in UN actions, we had a Senate (which is the body that consents to treaties) passing a unanimous consent regarding the issue, we have a President who consulted Congressional leaders, and who wrote a letter to Congress under the provisions of the War Powers Act. We have a case where Meacham decides that he knows what is or is not lawful, when the Supreme Court has never ruled (even it has had the opportunity) that Presidents have acted unlawfully under the War Powers Act. We had, as you said, Susan, exigent circumstances requiring immediate action.

    Take it to a court, Meacham. You’re not qualified to assert such profoundly arrogant and uninformed statement of law based on nothing but the opinion of a law professor.

  • Nathan

    You’re right to point out that the issues here are not black and white. Similarly, the issue of whether a massacre in Benghazi — and nobody denies that it would have been a massacre — is cause enough for the president to go to war without seeking congressional approval is also not black-and-white. Nobody who questions — let alone opposes — sending our troops to war in a foreign country should be accused of “callous disregard” for a human tragedy. It’s intellectually dishonest. A massacre is unfolding as we speak in the Ivory Coast, and in Syria, and possibly in Yemen. Are you advocating for U.S. military action in those countries as well?

    I am not a law professor, so I will defer to someone who is, on the matter of whether the president has the legal authority to unilaterally authorize a U.S. military campaign. I’m referring, of course, to Barack Obama himself, who said 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.” I agreed with him then. His prudence and respect for the Constitutional limits on the president’s authority were, in part, reasons why I voted for him.

    I’ll also refer to Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, who is cited in Meacham’s essay. He wrote of the Libya bombing campaign: “No existing statute or treaty allows this action. Gaddafi isn’t linked to Al Qaeda, so an attack against him isn’t supported by the resolution authorizing force against terrorists involved in 9/11. If Obama goes it alone, he must return to Bush-era assertions that the president, as commander-in-chief, can unilaterally launch the nation into war.” Ackerman went on to call Obama’s actions a potential “death blow” to Constitutional checks and balances.

    One more. Glenn Greenwald, also a lawyer, writes: “The constitutional requirement for Congressional approval is not some legalistic or technical barrier; it’s vital. The Founders emphasized that war is the most serious matter upon which a nation can embark, that it is the citizenry that bears the risks and costs, and it is thus imperative that they first consent through their representatives in Congress.”

    I deplore the violence in Libya. I support the United Nations. I’m glad President Obama sought the Security Council’s approval, and I’m glad he is working with allies. But none of that satisfies the Constitutional requirement that the president seek congressional authorization for military action before taking the country to war. He owes it to the troops who will be doing the fighting, and to the citizens in whose name he acts.

  • Anonymous

    There’s a way to test whether “that satisfies the Constitutional requirement that the president seek congressional authorization.” Congress can take it to court. Or Congress can withhold funding. Or Congress can deny authorization. If there’s a problem, there’s a solution. With Congress failing to act as its own advocate (since it is Congress whose power you are apparently advocating), it seems to me that the President has received approval. The Constitution is self-enforcing, in the sense that the “balance of power” is only as good as the three branches of government. If the Executive acts without objection, then (especially in an exigent need for humanitarian action), what’s the point of wasting lives trading chits with John Bohner? Whose social security benefits would John Bohner exact as the price for consent? John has his chance now – he should go for it.

  • Anonymous

    Amen, brother. You said just about everything I had intended to say about Mr. Meacham and his inept editorial. One thing remains to be discussed, I believe.
    During the 1980s when Iran, under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeni, began interfering with international shipping in the Persian Gulf, President Reagan deployed significant US Navy forces in the region to which he gave express authority to engage not only in self-defense but also attack, whereupon several armed exchanges took place between US and Iranian air and naval forces. Congress, fearing escalation into outright war, made noises invoking the War Powers Act at least twice. Reagan responded by deeming the War Powers Act (WPA) unconstitutional. The problem is that the constitutionality of the WPA has never been tested. Congress has always bowed to the power of the Executive Branch in this matter. The Supreme Court has not intervened of its own volition, as they were willing to do illegally in 2000′s Bush v. Gore mess.
    This was the first I have watched “Need To Know”. I think, at present, it should be called “Need to Think (Better)”.

  • Professor Susan Schneider

    Thanks to Nathan for your thoughtful comments. In retrospect, my use of the phrase “callous disregard” was hyperbolic. I was reacting to the tone as well as the content of Mr. Meacham’s editorial. It reminded me of the old point-counterpoint debates that pitted two extreme positions against each other. I think we have far too much of that today, and too little recognition that the world is a complex place with few black and white lines. Without meaning to be disrespectful of Professor Ackerman, any reference to the no-fly zone as a potential death blow to Constitutional checks and balances is in a similar vein. In my view, what Obama did was dramatically different than declaring war. He has 60 days to obtain Congressional approval, and in my view, the best possible result would be that Ghadaffi is gone by then.

    I respect your views and thank you for articulating them in a thoughtful manner.

  • Anonymous

    Do your homework. Obama did go to Congress and did get approval! If ONE Sen. objected it would not pass. NO Sen. said no except after, freshman congress members should have learned the rules before they run for office.

  • Anonymous

    You’re another troll, repeating same talking points! Get a life, do you have it in writing, you’ll be one of them?

  • The_IronMan

    Hasn’t the presidency been operating under the War Powers Act since 9/11 for the War on Terror?

  • Doug Fabens

    Believe Meacham used calculatedly imprecise language to frame his argument, making it critically UNclear about what had been done (consulting – at all? – to what end?) with Congress, and how that relates to the War Powers Act, the Constitution and the President. Believe it was manifestly in the public record that throughout, Obama consulted directly and indirectly with several members of Congress, and that was made known from the earliest days. Taken altogether, Meacham comes off as being politically biased. My expectation of public broadcasting is that items of political import will be presented with utmost clarity vs. convoluted inferences and innuendos, and that bias will be clearly avoided, or clearly labeled when it can’t be avoided. Meacham did the obverse.

  • Markjeff

    I find real value in Need to Know. I understand “where John Meacham is coming from” on the going-to-war topic. I do think it ironic his editorial aired on a show that also discussed “the errors of omission.” Sometimes your president needs to act, rather than fiddle in Congress.

  • Anonymous

    The United States is acting under a United Nations resolution that called for a “no fly zone”. This is why we are supplying Air Force involvement for protecting citizens through intelligence and air action.
    The United Nations is protecting citizens of a country from their all powerful dictator. This is a lesson learned from Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.

  • Nathan

    Thanks to you too, Susan. I’m glad we could have this thoughtful exchange of views, and that we could politely disagree. Regardless of whether you swayed me, your arguments certainly enriched my own thinking on the issue.

    The one last thing I’ll say is that I didn’t find the tone of Meacham’s editorial to be especially shrill. True, he came down pretty clearly on one side of the issue, but I think that’s okay. He didn’t attack any one personally, and as far as I can tell he wasn’t repeating anyone’s talking points (neither the Democratic nor the Republican leadership in Congress has accused Obama of circumventing the Constitution). If anything, I’m glad there’s still a place for strong dissent in our country. It’s what I expect from PBS.

  • Anonymous

    Personally, I think the War Powers Act itself is unconstitutional. The Constitution seems pretty clear on which branch has war powers, and it’s not the executive. Also, I think we would have a lot less wars if presidents weren’t given so much latitude to initiate them.

    The comparison to Bush is extremely unfair, given that his administration engaged in a fanatical propaganda campaign to bring about the Iraq War. I can’t imagine the Obama administration doing the same.

  • Iguana Keeper

    Actually, Bush got permission from Congress, his Administration just concocted a bunch of lies about WMD’s.
    You are right about the vote in the Senate, it wasn’t permission to launch an attack, and it left out the House, but it’s the post hoc argument the apologists are trying to use for CYA.

    As far as Meacham declaring this intervention as admittedly morally just, thats his inner liberal hawk speaking. Intervention is a an imperial hijack of the Arab revolution. It’s neocolonialism.

  • Iguana Keeper

    You put party above the constitution,and it’s not about Obama. It’s about values and consistency.

  • Anonymous

    Here is a link to libertarian lawyer Bruce Fein’s Article of Impeachment, explaining why President Obama’s actions were unconstitutional:

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Mr. Meacham for telling the facts. As much as I like Obama I am very disappointed in him here. All presidents should follow the Constitution which brings up a question. My understanding was that the Iraq war was unconstitutional because the UN never authorized the use of force. The US signed the UN Charter in 1945. So under Article 6 of the Constitution our nation was legally bound under international & domestic law to obey all articles of the Charter. So, the Iraq war was illegal, correct?