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Declaring War and the Security Council
Mike Ramsey

In previous posts I’ve argued that the U.S. intervention in Libya requires congressional approval under the Constitution’s original meaning and that there’s no longstanding uncontested precedent that would warrant departure from that meaning.  Here I’ll consider the significance of UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, calling for a cease fire by the Libyan government and authorizing nations to use force against the Libyan military.  Some commentators have taken these resolutions to somehow distinguish the Libya situation from earlier ones, such as the potential attack on Iranian nuclear facilities debated in 2007.

I can see two arguments that the Council’s actions might help the President, but I don’t find either persuasive.  First, the Resolutions are adopted pursuant to a treaty, the UN Charter, and thus have the force of law in the U.S.; perhaps the President, exercising his obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” (Article II, Section 3),  has constitutional power to enforce them without needing congressional approval.

It might pose a difficult question if a treaty itself declared war or obligated the U.S. to declare war.  The issue would be when and whether powers of Congress could also be exercised by treaty – a matter vigorously debated in the post-ratification period without producing a fully satisfactory conclusion.  But that is not the question here.  Resolution 1973 authorizes the use of force in Libya for certain purposes.  It does not obligate the U.S. (or any other nation) to use force against Libya.  Even if the President’s “take Care” power fully empowers (and requires) him to enforce U.S. treaty commitments, the President is under no treaty obligation to use force here.

Resolution 1973 addresses a distinct issue: under Articles 2(4)  and 51 of the  Charter, the U.S. has a treaty obligation not to use force against other nations except in defense of itself or its allies.  Since neither situation applies to Libya, the intervention would be illegal under these provisions but for Resolution 1973 (because using force with Security Council approval is another exception to the Article 2(4) obligation).  So the Resolution says what the U.S. as a nation may do, but it doesn’t say anything about which branch of the U.S. government should make the decision to do it.  

I suppose one could argue that the President has power under Article II, Section 3 to use the military to enforce other nations’ treaty obligations.  If so, the key resolution is not 1973 but 1970, which calls on the Libyan government to end violence against its citizens (and, by this theory, the President is “tak[ing] Care” this “Law” is executed).  That’s an extraordinarily broad claim, though, that would radically undermine Congress’ declare war power in a way clearly not accepted by the founding generation.  For example, no one thought President Adams in 1798 could attack France without congressional authorization just because France had violated a treaty with the U.S. (which it had).  The founding generations’ categorical statements that the President alone could not start a war make no sense if the President can in fact start a war to enforce a treaty – a justification that would very commonly be available.

A second argument might be that the Security Council resolutions change the nature of the conflict, so that it is no longer a “war” (and so not subject to the declare war clause).  President Truman tried this argument in 1950 in the conflict in Korea, but history hasn’t been kind to it: everyone calls that conflict “the Korean War” although Truman claimed it was a “police action” to enforce the U.N. Charter.  (Similarly the 1991 Gulf War is called a war despite being approved by Security Council  resolution.)   In any event, this argument does not get around the text and original meaning of the declare war clause.  Resolution 1973 sets the objectives and limits of the intervention, but the intervention remains the “exercise of violence under sovereign command” – the 18th century definition of “war.”  And, especially because U.S. participation in the intervention is voluntary under international law, the U.S. had to manifest “by word or action” its commitment to war – which is the 18th century definition of “declare.”

Finally, even if some conflicts fought under Security Council approval are “wars,” perhaps this one is not, because it is – as State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh said in a recent statement – “time-limited, well-defined, discrete and aimed at preventing an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.”  As Ken Anderson explores in this post, the Resolution itself is quite vague, and it’s not clear what limits it actually provides on the intervention.    But in any event, as I argued earlier, the founding generation surely understood limited wars, and still called them “wars” subject to the declare war clause.  The limits Koh describe may make the intervention just and reasonable, but they don’t make it any less a war.  According to recent news reports, among other things we are using sustained aerial attacks to destroy Libyan army tanks and ground forces, clearing the way for rebel forces to advance.  Wherever the line between war and not-war may be, this intervention seems firmly on the “war” side.  The fact that our actions are done with Security Council approval doesn’t change their nature – it only makes this a war in pursuit of objectives blessed by the Council.

This post originally appeared at Opinio Juris.