So let me get this straight: In Britain, Parliament actually has a say in war? But they’re the ones with a monarchy?
Now we know why Barack Obama has declined to ask Congress for authorization to go attack Syria. The war fatigue that enveloped the Brits could descend on Capitol Hill as well. Then he would face the prospect of having to stay out of a conflict that has no bearing on our security and whose outcome we don’t intend to alter.
It’s not clear why that would be such a bad thing, for Obama or the country. The president made a huge unforced error by vowing action if President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. Now he obviously feels he can’t back down without losing all credibility.
Putting the issue before Congress would be useful regardless of the outcome. It could let him off the hook by blocking the war and spare us the risks that go with it. Or, supposing he won the vote, it would spread the responsibility if things go badly.
But asking Obama to stop expanding his authority is like asking a shark to cease swimming. If the Constitution and the law aren’t enough to bind him, there’s no reason to think political expedience will.
Americans, many of whom were disenchanted by George W. Bush’s aggressive interpretation of presidential war powers and his endless appetite for using them, expected his successor to go the other way. “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,” Obama said in 2007.
Yes, he did. But he regards that position the way Miley Cyrus treats her time as Disney icon Hannah Montana: not only something to forget but something to repudiate, as extravagantly as possible.
In this instance, the president doesn’t identify any “imminent threat to the nation.” Nor does he need to move quickly to repel an attack. There is no particular time pressure on the United States to act in response to Syria’s alleged use of poison gas.
So Obama could easily go to the trouble of asking for congressional approval. If that takes a week or two, it won’t lessen the accountability he wants to impose on Assad. It would, however, restore the idea that the president’s power to deploy military force has boundaries.
The loyal opposition has a new appreciation of that concept. At last count, 119 House Republicans (and 21 Democrats) have signed a letter telling Obama, “Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”
The president responded by patting them fondly on the head. “The views of Congress are important to the president’s decision-making process,” said a White House statement, which sounded exactly like that recording when you’re on hold that says, “Your call is very important to us.” Obama thinks he’s being more than generous by telling members what he’s going to do without their consent.
The framers of the Constitution took a contrary view. Claremont McKenna College historian Charles Lofgren, a premier scholar on the topic, has written that the bulk of the evidence indicates they “saw Congress as possessing nearly exclusive authority over committing the nation” to war.
Hoover Institution fellow Abraham Sofaer, who was legal adviser to the State Department under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, concluded that “Congress was seen by all who commented on the issue as possessing exclusive control of the means of war.” The War Powers Resolution of 1973 also established requirements for the president’s use of force.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress have generally concurred that the president may not start wars purely on his own say-so. Trouble is, they usually change their minds as soon as their party wins the White House.
As imperial presidents go, Obama manages the feat of being worse than his immediate predecessor. Bush claimed vast powers but asked and got Congress to authorize the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama went to war in Libya without giving Congress the time of day, and he is about to do the same in Syria.
Makes you wonder if the framers were wrong about gaining our independence from Britain. This wouldn’t be happening if we were ruled by the Queen.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.