Global Ethics Corner: Congress, the President, and Libya

Jul 1, 2011

Should the president be supported by the legislative branch when making difficult foreign policy decisions requiring the use of force? How does this apply to Libya?

The Associated Press notes that on June 24th, "In a repudiation of their commander in chief, House members rejected a measure to authorize the Libya mission for a year..." by an overwhelming vote of 295 to 123.

Should the president be supported when making difficult foreign policy decisions requiring the use of force? Alternatively, should Congress ignore its oversight responsibility because issues are complicated or obscure?

According to the Constitution, the president is commander in chief of America's armed forces, and receives diplomatic representatives. The practice and presumption of presidential supremacy in foreign policy emerged from these.

From the Constitution, Congress has the power to declare war, and any spending must originate in the House of Representatives. Congressional prerogatives and preferences in foreign policy emerged from these.

One view of international conflict rests on Clausewitz's saying that war is politics by another means, and sees military power as simply one tool for pursuing national interests. Hence, there are many uses of force short of declared war.

In this view, use of force requires information and judgment, and disagreements easily emerge between different judges with different expertise.

Unfortunately, by its structure and character, Congress as a body is less likely than the executive to have full information or understanding of operations like Libya, where the situation is both murky and complex. However, Congress still has oversight obligations.

With whom do you agree both in general, and specifically on Libya: the president or Congress?

By William Vocke

For more information see:

Associated Press, "House says no to war in Libya: Lawmakers won't halt funds for operation," Troy Daily News, June 25, 2011, p.1

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Marc I. Lane/ U.S. Air Force
Pete Souza
Pete Souza
Pete Souza
Lawrence Jackson
U.S. Army
Cameron Boyd/ U.S. Army
Pete Souza
Mike Turner
Audrey Pilato
Pete Souza

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