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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.