George Will: All Over the Map on the War Powers Act

George Will (cc photo: Keith Allison)

George Will (cc photo: Keith Allison)

On Sunday George Will wrote a strong Washington Post column about Obama, the Libya War and the law:

In a bipartisan cascade of hypocrisies, a liberal president, with the collaborative silence of most congressional conservatives, is traducing the War Powers Resolution.

Enacted in 1973 over President Nixon’s veto, the WPR may or may not be wise. It is, however, unquestionably a law, and Barack Obama certainly is violating it.

“Liberals are situational ethicists regarding presidential warmaking,” Will explained, going on to suggest that George W. Bush would have been treated much differently than Obama. And Will had harsh words for John McCain:

“No president,” says Sen. John McCain, “has ever recognized the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, and neither do I. So I don’t feel bound by any deadline.” Oh? No law is actually a law if presidents and senators do not “recognize” it? Now, there is an interesting alternative to judicial review, and an indicator of how executive aggrandizement and legislative dereliction of duty degrade the rule of law.

So liberals are inconsistent, and John McCain is making an absurd argument about the Act being unconstitutional.

George Will’s record on the War Powers Act, though, has been all over the map (not unlike his position–or positions–on the filibuster). Here’s where he seems to have started:

September 15, 1983:

President Nixon was wrong to veto the War Powers Act, which Congress passed over his veto in 1973. A veto was too good for it. He should have mailed it back to Capitol Hill unsigned, with postage due, and with a note saying that although it always is entertaining to read Congress’ opinions about constitutional construction, the Constitution clearly vests in the president the power to control the armed forces.

November 11, 1984:

Repeal of the War Powers Act. It is unwieldy, unclear and clearly unconstitutional as a derogation of the responsibilities of the commander in chief vested in the presidency and exercised by most occupants of that office. No president has yet quite complied with the act. Repeal would be the straightforward approach.

During the run up to the first Gulf War (11/15/90), Will seemed to be softening a bit, but his take still seemed pretty clear:

The War Powers Act is of dubious constitutionality and cumbersome formality, and the president’s war of nerves with Iraq should not be undercut by a clock controlling when Congress must ratify or reject Desert Shield.

And then something seemed to switch. Under the headline “McCain’s Honest Passion,” Will expressed fondness (5/9/99) for McCain’s anti-War Powers position during the Yugoslavia war, where he called on Bill Clinton to embrace his executive authority and wage as wide a war as he deemed necessary–including using U.S. ground forces. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, wasn’t so supportive–some Republicans cited the War Powers Act to oppose Clinton’s bombing.

McCain was, in Will’s estimation, getting things right:

McCain said he found himself in the “curious” but “not unexpected” position of defending the president’s constitutional authority without the president’s support. Although McCain thought his resolution constitutionally redundant, he offered it “in the forlorn hope that the president would take courage from it, and find the resolve to do his duty.” Said McCain, “The president does not want the power he possesses by law because the risks inherent in its exercise have paralyzed him.”

A week earlier the House, with an incoherence produced by the timidity of careerists, voted against declaring war, against supporting the air war, against withdrawal of U.S. forces, against use of ground troops without congressional approval and against stopping what they will not support. Many House Republicans embraced what McCain considers the War Powers Act’s unconstitutional presumptions about the limits on presidential war-making.

Will went on to argue that “many House Republicans, claiming an authority Congress neither possesses constitutionally nor cares to exercise, embraced the Act.”

Like George Will said, liberals need to figure out where they stand on the War Powers Act. Otherwise they just seem wildly inconsistent.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.