Obama Syria War: the War Powers Act Could Complicate Obama's Handling Of Syria


Following the Vietnam War, Americans wanted to ensure this country never again committed our military to long conflicts without either a declaration of war or other formal approval of Congress. They wanted Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution followed by America's leaders instead of ignored.

Congress heeded this call and passed the War Powers Resolution, aka War Powers Act. President Nixon vetoed this bill but on November 7, 1973, Congress overrode the veto; 284-135 in the House and 75-18 in the Senate, reaffirming that while the president is the commander in chief, only Congress has the power to declare war.

The War Powers Act is specific.

1) The president will consult with Congress before U.S. armed forces are committed to hostilities or to where hostilities are imminent.

2) It applies to all circumstances where U.S. armed forces are to deployed or where the number of forces already deployed is to be significantly increased for the purpose of combat. It applies to forces deployed to the land, airspace, or waters of any foreign nation.

3) The president must report to both chambers of Congress within 48 hours:

- The specific circumstances requiring the deployment of U.S. forces.

- The constitutional and legislative authority to take such action.

- The scope and duration of U.S involvement.

- Requires the president to provide any other information requested by Congress needed to allow it to perform its constitutional authority to commit the nation to war and report to Congress periodically, but no less than once every six month, the status of hostilities and projected continued involvement of U.S. armed forces.

- Following the initial report, Congress has 60 days to declare war or specially authorize, through legislation, the continued use of U.S. forces. If neither of these are done, forces must be withdrawn.  

- Monetary appropriations do not constitute authorization for use of U.S. armed forces unless such authorization is specifically granted in the appropriation.

- The requirements of the War Powers Resolution do not apply to commitment of forces under multi-national commands and treaties, or the United Nations Charter in existence prior to the enactment of the resolution.  

Since enactment of the War Powers Resolution, it has been an area of contention between the president and Congress.

1) President Ford: In 1975, Ford reported to Congress concerning the Mayaguez incident. This issue was resolved within 60 days.

2) President Reagan: In 1981Reagan sent military advisors to El Salvador but failed to submit a report to Congress. Some members of Congress filed a federal lawsuit to force compliance, but the U.S. District Court declined to hear the suit based on a belief hostilities were not imminent and the suit was filed for political reasons. In 1982 when he   sent Marines to Lebanon as a peacekeeping force, Reagan did submit three reports to Congress. However, because those reports did not reference the Act, the 60-day clock was never started. As the Marines came under increased enemy fire, Congress and the president worked together resulting in a bill specifically authorizing the combat deployment of the Marines for 18 months being passed in compliance with the War Powers Resolution. President Reagan did not report to Congress on the invasion of Grenada in 1983. As this was a mission requested by the Organization of American States, Reagan was not in violation of the resolution. Additionally, the action had wide public support since American medical students were being held.

3) President George H.W. Bush: While technically not required because action was based on a UN resolution, Bush did inform Congress in 1990 on the build-up of U.S. forces in Kuwait in preparation to confront Iraq. In the spirit of the War Powers Resolution, Bush did ask for support from Congress. Congress responded with legislation authorizing Operation Desert Storm. 

4) President Clinton: Clinton thought the War Powers Resolution was constitutionally weak. While he didcommit U.S. armed forces throughout his presidency, these commitments were triggered by UN Security Council resolutions and were multi-national campaigns conducted by NATO. As such, reports to Congress under the War Powers Resolution were not required. That said, Clinton did periodically report to Congress although never invoking the time limits established in the resolution. Representative Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) along with other members of the house filed suit in Federal District Court in an attempt to force Clinton to formally comply with the War Powers Resolution. The court refused to hear the case stating the Congressmen lacked standing. Likewise, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.

5) President George W. Bush: In December, 1989, Bush Sr. sent troops to Panama when tensions between the U.S. and Panama escalated as the result of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega nullifying election results. Bush did not report to Congress and Congress did not push for a report under the War Powers Resolution. Then on September 11, 2001 the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon triggered Congress to grant broad powers to the president. Bush reported to Congress and Congress passed a law authorizing the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons." It is this law that authorizes use of American forces in Afghanistan. Bush reported to Congress again in 2002 with Congress authorizing use of military force against Iraq.

Now Syria. The U.S. has provided Patriot missiles to Turkey under the NATO alliance. There is no U.N. resolution authorizing a multi-national force to assist either side. NATO, has not put together a unified military force to intervene. On June 13, President Obama declared we had proof of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime and that  we would now provide military assistance to the rebel forces. Congress must demand the president comply fully with the War Powers Resolution.