As jubilant rebel fighters took over the compound of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Americans could share in the still-anxious moments of celebration. Working through NATO, the United States aided in routing a man President Obama described as a tyrant who denied his countrymen "their most basic human rights."
Whenever the Gadhafi forces end their fight, the events in Libya certainly vindicate the steps taken by NATO with U.S. help to head off what many feared would be a humanitarian disaster.
The Gadhafi regime's vow in February to crush the rebellion that arose in Libya's second-largest city of Benghazi required a quick response from the international community. That hurried timetable, though, leaves U.S. policymakers with some unfinished domestic business: When and how should a president consult with Congress in deciding to send U.S. military forces into a conflict?
When the Gadhafi threats were issued, Obama was smart to move quickly. He committed the United States to a limited role, providing air strikes, intelligence, and other planning. Last week, he was able to say that the country's contribution came "without putting a single U.S. troop on the ground."
But the president ran into understandable flak from both sides of the aisle with his decision not to return to Congress and get approval for intervening in Libya. His argument - saying that under the 1973 War Powers Act, congressional action wasn't needed since the mission was humanitarian, not combat - didn't stand up, given the fighting that erupted.
Was the president's tactic a legal nicety to avoid another deadlocked debate in a Congress paralyzed by partisan rancor? Maybe so. Is it another sign that the War Powers Act needs to be revisited, since it doesn't appear to work? Certainly.
Despite a highly publicized effort by some in Congress earlier this summer, neither the House nor the Senate invoked the 1973 act.
Congress has another way to rein in the president's use of the military - cutting off or barring funds for the action in question. Yet, Congress has been understandably reluctant to use that power to second-guess the president once U.S. troops are sent into action.
And so a delicate ambiguity persists. Presidents assert the unilateral power to commit the U.S. military, and Congress makes a show of complaining about it - without actually invoking the power it has under the Constitution.
The last war officially declared by Congress was World War II. Since Vietnam, presidents and Congress have found other ways to exercise their constitutional responsibilities over military engagements. Both Presidents Bush sought congressional resolutions of approval, rather than declarations of war, before committing U.S. troops in combat against Iraq.