The Obama administration launched its air war against Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya after a vote of the UN Security Council, but without any congressional authorization — and apparently not even very much consultation with congressional leaders. A review of the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from Friday night through Monday night found virtually no network interest in Obama’s bypassing of Congress — an attitude in stark contrast to their approach to the Bush administration during the run-up to the Iraq war in late 2002.
With Libya, only the NBC Nightly News has even mentioned the controversy over the Obama administration’s decision to cut Congress out of the decision-making. On the March 20 Nightly News, White House correspondent Chuck Todd offered one sentence taking note of John Boehner’s objections in a laundry list of other congressional complaints:
You’ve seen a lot of members of Congress go out today and the President’s been criticized, both left and right, some because — arguing that he’s taken too long. Speaker Boehner is upset that he hasn’t done enough consultation with Congress. And, of course, some of the liberal members of the president’s own party are upset that he’s started yet another military campaign.
Todd revisited the issue on Monday’s Nightly News, relaying the White House line that the real problem was that Obama was on foreign trip and could not easily meet one-on-one with members of Congress. “Yes, they [White House officials] were able to let them [congressional leaders] know on the Friday before they left what they were going to do,” Todd argued before admitting, “but there wasn’t real consultation.”
On Monday’s World News, ABC’s Jake Tapper offered a story summarizing the White House response to several congressional criticisms, but not the lack of consultation/authorization. (Tapper did emphasize the lack of consultation question on Tuesday’s Good Morning America, however.)
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Eight years ago, MRC’s Geoff Dickens discovered in a review, the networks were deeply concerned over whether the Bush administration might launch military action against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship without congressional approval (a much higher threshold than mere consultation). ABC’s Peter Jennings opened the August 29, 2002 World News Tonight by wondering, “Could the President, would the President go ahead without Congressional approval?”
Three days later on CBS’s Face the Nation, fill-in host John Roberts hit Democratic moneyman Terry McAuliffe with the same question: “House Minority Leader Gephardt said last week that ‘It’s got to come to a vote, some kind of a vote.’ Do you believe that the President needs to go to Congress?”
McAuliffe was emphatic: “Well, I think the President should. I think he needs to get a mandate from the American public and from Congress.”
That same day, on ABC’s This Week (then co-hosted by Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts), ABC correspondent Claire Shipman made the same point during the roundtable: “Obviously the White House will go to Congress. They would be crazy not to.”
Bush administration officials at the time made public statements indicating that congressional approval was not necessary, strictly speaking, because Saddam Hussein’s regime was in violation of the 1991 resolutions that certified the first Iraq war. But both the media and congressional Democrats insisted that such a major new commitment of U.S. military resources needed its own approval, which was forthcoming in October 2002 (by lopsided votes in both the House and the Senate).
In this case, the Obama administration seems to be resting its legal authorization solely on the United Nations, a point NBC’s Todd alluded to on Saturday’s Nightly News: “He’s [President Obama is] always going to want these multilateral coalitions; and not just a group of countries, but getting it legally, basically getting the legal justification from institutions like the United Nations and the Arab League, both of which we saw today.”
It’s unclear if the United Nations, let alone the Arab League, can “legally” authorize any activity by the U.S. military. The President can certainly take pre-emptive action without immediate congressional approval to protect U.S. lives and interests, but Obama refused to harshly condemn the Qaddafi regime until U.S. citizens had been evacuated from Libya.
A news story in today’s New York Times (page A12) does, however, include a graph noting candidate Obama’s rhetoric from 2007: “‘The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,’ Mr. Obama told the Boston Globe in 2007.’”
— Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.