Will Obama go to Congress before attacking Syria?

The answer to that question is … probably not.  Despite all of the handwringing by Democrats in the last administration about “imperial presidencies,” Barack Obama has exercised military powers unilaterally, especially in Libya, which was a war against Moammar Qaddafi in all but name. Based on the responses from the White House late yesterday, we can expect more of the same regarding Syria:


Carney also downplayed a role for Congress in reviewing or approving any strike plan. “I’m not going to speculate about a [presidential] decision that has not been made,” he said.

“I’m not going to itemize calls … [but] we are consulting with members of Congress,” he said.

Even less surprisingly, Obama will bypass the UN.  Neil Munro notes that Obama criticized George W. Bush for not waiting for UN approval to invade Iraq, but the actions under consideration for Syria likely fall far short of a ground assault:

The use of chemical weapons is “a clear violation of an international norm,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

But the international norm was adopted by “a vast majority of nations … since World War I,” Carney said.

He did not say the norm was endorsed or enforced the U.N.

When asked by a reporter about the U.N.’s role, Carney punted.

“You’re getting in to a hypothetical about a decision that has not been made. … The president is consulting with the international community,” said Carney, pointedly omitting the U.N.

The UN issue just reflects a certain amount of hypocrisy, and is the lesser concern.  The US has not ceded sovereignty to the UN; it is just a platform for multilateral diplomacy, albeit the most prominent.  Bypassing Congress on the use of military force is another matter.  The executive has the power to use military power for a limited time through the War Powers Act, which was meant for an emergency where national security is a concern, although the WPA has been used to justify all sorts of interventions over the last 30-plus years.


Libya certainly didn’t qualify as an emergency in regard to our own national security, and neither does Syria.  The Libya intervention should have been instructive to Obama, too.  Originally hailed as a success when the Qaddafi regime collapsed, it has turned into an utter disaster. We unleashed our enemies in the war on terror and provided them a failed state with which to launch offensives throughout Northern Africa.  Spreading the political responsibility for that kind of risk would have been helpful, just as Congressional authorization for invading Iraq was for Bush when the war turned sour in 2006-7. And Congress would almost certainly have provided bipartisan cover for Obama on Libya in the spring of 2011 had he asked for it.

The same is true here on Syria, although perhaps somewhat less so after getting the high hand from Obama on Libya.  Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) thinks Congressional approval would get his colleagues to take foreign policy a little more seriously, too:

Monday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, said he hoped Obama would seek congressional permission before he acted in the region. Corker also confirmed that he was in communication with security advisers at the White House who were weighing their options for military intervention in Syria.

“They do not need an authorization, but I do hope they will come for one,” Corker said Monday during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “If you look at foreign policy over the last long period of time, Congress has gotten a pass on all of these issues and the debate in Washington to me can be almost sophomoric and silly because we are not taking ownership over these decisions.”

The War Powers Resolution allows Obama to intervene in a conflict without a formal vote by Congress, but the law does require the president to get approval to stay engaged after a maximum of 90 days. Despite that, presidents have not always gone to Congress for approval after that time frame.


The WPA says 60 day, not 90; the additional 30 are for withdrawal if the President declines to consult Congress. The only two Presidents to my memory who didn’t go to Congress by that time are Obama and Bill Clinton, in Kosovo.

The White House is mulling over a plan that would involve at least a couple of days of combat against a nation which has not attacked the US, nor represents a direct threat to us at the moment.  Unlike the initial rationalization about the use of force against Libya, there isn’t a ticking clock on such action to save a population from massacre. The White House has no excuse to eschew Congressional approval that would almost certainly be immediately granted to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons, assuming that the strike was punitive, limited, and not designed to hand Syria over to al-Qaeda. Not only is there no excuse for not seeking Congressional approval, it’s political malpractice not to seek it, especially with intervention polling so poorly among Americans at the moment.  Frankly, the go-it-alone strategy is inexplicable.

Update: The always-insightful Michael Ramirez offers his thoughts on this for the Investors Business Daily editorial cartoon today:


Also, be sure to check out Ramirez’ terrific collection of his works: Everyone Has the Right to My Opinion, which covers the entire breadth of Ramirez’ career, and it gives fascinating look at political history.  Read my review here, and watch my interviews with Ramirez here and here.  And don’t forget to check out the entire Investors.com site, which has now incorporated all of the former IBD Editorials, while individual investors still exist.


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