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President Nixon, er, Obama

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
How many times have we heard awestruck references to Barack Obama's history as a law professor? Many came from the man himself, as when he told a crowd at a 2007 fundraiser, "I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president, I actually respect the Constitution."

Does he? At his press conference on June 29, the president was asked whether he thought the War Powers Act -- which he has flamboyantly flouted in the case of our armed conflict with Libya -- was constitutional. His reply, during which he managed to inject yet another reference to his credential as a law "professor" (he was actually not a professor but a senior lecturer, but never mind), expressed the most flippant disregard for law that we've heard from an American president since Richard Nixon jousted with David Frost.

"Let me focus on, initially, the issue of Libya. I want to talk about the substance of Libya because there's been all kinds of noise about process and congressional consultation and so forth."

What the president dismisses as "noise" are the words of a valid U.S. law, the War Powers Resolution. Some presidents have thought it unwise. Some believed it to be unconstitutional. That is the case with many laws. It doesn't permit presidents, or anyone else, to disregard them.

Under the terms of the law, the president was required to seek congressional authorization within 48 hours of commencing a military conflict, and/or to withdraw American forces within 90 days if such authorization was not forthcoming. Both deadlines have passed.

The president's contempt for the law should have been evident since early March, when his administration tortured the English language to avoid using terms that might be a) commonsensical, or b) mentioned in the War Powers Resolution. Thus, deploying bombers and long-range missiles was "kinetic activity."

A White House letter to congressional leaders, issued close to the 60-day mark, argued that the action in Libya did not amount to "hostilities" as envisioned in the WPR. "U.S. participation has consisted of: (1) non-kinetic support to the NATO-led operation, including intelligence, logistical support, and search and rescue assistance; (2) aircraft that have assisted in the suppression and destruction of air defenses in support of the no-fly zone; and (3) since April 23, precision strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles against a limited set of clearly defined targets in support of the NATO-led coalition's efforts."

That's all very interesting, or not, but it's completely irrelevant to the law, which doesn't specify why or how the conflict unfolds, but only whether U.S. forces are involved. The kinetic activity that was supposed to last "days, not weeks" has now lasted months with no discernible exit and has cost, as of mid-June, $716 million. The total will top $1 billion by the end of September. (Congress, for a variety of reasons, declined to punish the president's law breaking and voted to continue funding for the Libya operation.)

The president's self-justification at Wednesday's press conference was highly revealing. The president emphasized half a dozen times that the U.S. had acted pursuant to a UN resolution. We know how dearly this president wants to reduce American leadership in the world, but in this context, his emphasis on the Security Council served to highlight the absence of authorization from the Congress.

Gadhafi is an evil figure, President Bush, um, Obama continued. "Moammar Gadhafi, who, prior to Osama bin Laden, was responsible for more American deaths than just about anybody on the planet" was planning to kill more of his people, the president explained. That sounds like something the president could have mentioned when he asked Congress for approval of this "war of choice." Bush believed that Saddam Hussein's evil was unstoppable by anything short of war, too. And he, too, had a UN resolution in his pocket. But he went to Congress.

Obama asserted airily that the WPR was intended to prevent another Vietnam, and that the Libya action didn't count. The former law lecturer should know that the framers' intent is not the law. The words on the page are the law. It doesn't matter that the war is starting slowly (sound familiar?), or that the president merely "led from behind." He has demonstrated contempt for the law. Period.

Imagine if any Republican had done it.

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