War Powers Act and U.S. Forces in Libya

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Dr. Christopher McKnight Nichols
Postdoctoral fellow in U.S. history at the University of Pennsylvania


  • Senior editor of the forthcoming “Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History,” author of “Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age” and co-author of  “Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day”
  • Specializes in the history of the United States' role in the world, with expertise in American intellectual, cultural, political and foreign policy history; international relations; diplomacy; isolationism; and internationalism.


"There is widespread and increasing American desire for large troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and a sense that the mission in Libya is ill-defined and not in the nation's interest.  On the question of the War Powers Resolution and its applicability in this case, my view is that the White House argument is a stretch but is justified.  President Obama’s position also is consistent with precedent and the interpretations of war powers as presented by the Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton administrations. The current executive branch stance fits the letter of the law as conceived and passed in 1973, over President Nixon’s veto, but not the intent.

“U.S. military forces engaged in Libya at present operate under NATO authority, sanctioned by U.N. resolution, and without troops on the ground or manned aircraft flying combat operations.  Instead the U.S. provides support missions, such as refueling and jamming, and strategic operations undertaken by tactical drones. This limited level of engagement and unique operational structure does not appear to fulfill the vague criteria for 'hostilities' under the War Powers Resolution and thus does not require a deadline for Congressional approval or force withdrawal.  

“That said, as a matter of politics, I think the president ought to present his views to the American people in a joint address to the Congress in order to clarify why and for how long he envisions U.S. forces will continue to operate in Libya."